“Less is more.” It’s one of those phrases that everyone knows; we might even occasionally quote it friends and co-workers when it suits us. When it comes to optimal performance, though, it seems almost a travesty to link the two concepts together.
Conventional thought tends to understand the pursuit of maximising your performance and being your best self with more of everything. It may be true in some respects; success is indeed the fruit of more hard work, more initiative, more networking, more challenges, and so on.
Logically, then, doing more things–and by extension, multitasking between them–seems like the tried and tested road for greater performance.
This isn’t always the case, though. Despite how used we are to multitasking thanks to the advent of smartphones, hyperconnectivity, and other technological advancements, science actually shows that multitasking can be less helpful, and more detrimental to your performance. Here’s why.
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A lot of people tend to think of multitasking as though it were a juggling act that just takes practice. By this logic, over time, you learn how to divide your attention equally between all your tasks such that you’re getting more things done with the same amount of time, all while never dropping the ball on anything you’re working on.
Science, though, shows the opposite: our minds can’t really multitask. When multitasking, instead of dividing our attention equally between all our tasks, the human mind can only really focus on one or two tasks at any one time. The net effect, of course, is that you only think you’re getting more things done, when in reality, multitasking lowers your productivity by as much as 40% (according to researchers at MIT.)
Think of it this way: the more tabs you have open on your computer, the slower it works. The mind works in a similar way. Doing more than one thing at any one time only really slows you down, making you more inefficient and less productive than anything else.
Having to stretch your attention across so many different tasks also takes a huge toll on your mind. The more you engage in task-switching, the harder your brain works to keep up; it takes much faster to overload your mind while you’re multitasking than while you’re doing one thing at a time.
Unsurprisingly, studies have found that people who spent just 20 minutes multitasking were far more stressed than those who spent the same 20 minutes on one task.
It’s also much easier to feel overwhelmed with stress when you’re multitasking. A lot of the time, we stress ourselves out by worrying about how we’re going to cope with the demands of work and life–sometimes more so than the objective stress resulting from our workloads and daily responsibilities.
Multitasking can heighten this sense of having too much to do in too little time, because we tend to switch between a lot of different tasks without seeing each one to completion. That alone can increase our perception that we have too much to do. Coupled with the stress that comes from the aforementioned lowered productivity, it can be crippling.
Mental clarity and a laser-sharp focus are two of the most important things that any aspiring executive must possess. Multitasking, though, takes you further and further away from your goals by keeping you so accustomed to distraction that even tuning out and getting in the zone can become a gargantuan task.
The numbers speak for themselves: recent studies show that at least 50% of Singaporeans get stressed out just from the thought of doing nothing. Mental overstimulation, it seems has become much more integral to our modern lifestyles than we think.
The cumulative effect, according to the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass, is a significantly reduced ability to focus. According to Nass, those who frequently multitask have been found to develop “habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused”, because they “can’t filter out irrelevancy… [are] chronically distracted, and initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.”