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Multitasking: A habit I’m trying to break

Categories: Balancing Act, Career Talk, Your life


I was in a meeting at work the other day and at one point realized that I was doing three separate things at the same time: Listening, answering emails, and working on a presentation I needed to finish by end of day. To be honest, I multitask, especially in long meetings with lots of people. My rationale is that there isn’t enough hours in the day and I need to get a lot done, so I try to cram every hour with getting as much work done as possible.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all this multitasking means that I’m not really doing any of the things I’m working on really well. There have been plenty of meetings where I tune out (doing other work) and miss important parts. And I bet my presentation would be better if I didn’t work on it while trying to listen to another one in the meeting.

My multitasking isn’t limited to work. When I cook I often try to catch up on work email when I have a few minutes free from stirring/cutting/pouring, which has often resulted in dishes burning or overflowing. I’ve made a conscious effort to not multitask when I’m hanging with my kiddo (meaning, no answering emails while we’re sitting in the park or having dinner together), but you’d definitely catch me catching up on emails during her piano lessons.

And even when I’m not doing several things at once, I’m often switching from one task to another in rapid succession — check email, answer call, work on a document, check email, run to a meeting, and so on.

There are many studies showing that multitasking makes it more difficult to remember things, learn things, be productive at what we’re doing, or get things done efficiently. Our brains, it seems, weren’t built to handle doing several things at once or constantly and quickly switching focus from one task to another. Yet we’re multitasking more and more; I’m sure there are many statistics about this, but just look at your day and you’ll probably see this pattern. In our always connected — email, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone, computer — and busy world, multitasking is something most of us think we have to do.

I don’t know if I can be 100% successful but it’s a habit I’m trying to kick. Not only because the quality of whatever I produce while I multitask isn’t great (from my presentations to my cooking), but because it makes me feel more frazzled and pulled in a gazillion directions. My yoga teacher said the other day that she hopes the hour-long class is a break we all need from doing a million things at once and just focusing on one thing — breathing. I’m not a serious yogi, but one of the reasons I like yoga is because for the hour that I’m doing it I am not multitasking and I feel it helps me focus better even after class. Perhaps reducing how much I multitask at work and at home can help me do that also.

I promise to report back on my progress with kicking my multitasking habit, but I’d love to hear from you: Do you find yourself multitasking all the time? Do you feel that it affects you negatively or you’ve figured a way to make it work?

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3 comments so far...

  • Switching is totally different from attempting to do simultaneously. O tend to think true multitasking doesn’t work, it is all varied degrees of switching from one to the next.

    I understand the issue, switching is continuous here. And yes, I work on resumes as I do laundry - but I’m not trying to type as I’m putting clothes from washer to dryer - it is switching there not true multitasking. And yes - I’ve had several things boil over or cook a little too crispy because I thought I could just dash of that email while it cooked. Oops.

    To me working while a child is in piano lessons (or therapy, or dental appts) are totally a time to catch up on emails/work on presentations - after all, once your child reaches a certain age you’re there basically for shuttling (and bill paying) purposes, not for any need on your part so work away!

    Mich  |  July 18th, 2011 at 1:24 pm

  • I am not sure I can be coherent on this topic. (That would require ignoring what’s going on in the other window open on my computer, LOL.) But I agree that multitasking isn’t in the “more is better” category. On the other hand, it isn’t all bad.

    I like what Mich said about switching. You can have something going on in the background and switch to it when you need a break from your main project. But, you have to choose carefully so that neither screws up the other one.

    I’m a poor listener, so when I’m on a conference call, my mind will wander all over the place. I think “let me just switch to X for a second until they get to the next topic,” but then I stay away too long and miss important stuff. But if I don’t do something with my hands, I will just start daydreaming about my personal life, with the same bad result. So I’ve learned to open up a Shanghai game during conference calls. It’s just distracting enough to keep my mind from wandering all over town, but not enough to stop me from listening. And, nobody cares if I lose 20 games in a row when the call gets interesting.

    As for getting 30 things done in a day, it’s about planning as well as switching. If I plan ahead, I can accomplish 10 different things on my lunch break. Not all at the same time, but serially and efficiently. For example, making my lunch and packing my kids’ picnic dinner. I can save a lot of time if I plan to do these at the same time. Some of it might be multitasking, but most of it is just efficient switching.

    I think multitasking is often rather rude. Either focus on me or leave me alone - my time is precious too. I have a partner, however, who thinks multitasking is a virtue. To her, I say “I cannot do that” and that’s the end of that.

    SKL  |  July 19th, 2011 at 9:26 am

  • It’s good to know that I can attribute my lack of memory (or at least part of it) to my incessant multitasking. I think I’d be able to do less multitasking if I could just somehow manage to add a few more hours to my day - every day!!

    butterfly  |  July 20th, 2011 at 8:56 pm