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Are you guilty of talking to your friends whilst sneaking a peak at the messages popping up on your mobile screen? Or are you one of those workaholics who checks in whilst on a family holiday and finds time to keep a tab on office projects and delegate work during a holiday? A super mum or dad who juggles school homework while watching your favourite series and sorting out the laundry? We are all guilty of multitasking. How else can you get everything done in 24 hours? 

Multitasking is best described as the performing multiple tasks over a certain period of time by executing them concurrently. We do this in schools and homes. Our managers expect this from us at work but is multitasking good for you?

There are so many schools of thoughts on this one. According to Asma Ahmed, 36 year-old- Education Director and mum of three kids, “Multitasking is more like organising yourself and planning ahead. I have been a working woman all my life; I got married, had kids, changed jobs and started a business, yet, even today I love being super busy, spending time with the family and having a social life. I cannot do any of this unless I am super organised. After some trial and errors, I have realised the key to multitasking is being organised and you will automatically know how much is too much.”

Switch-tasking

Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director at Lighthouse Arabia, agrees. “There is no such thing as multitasking. It is actually a myth that people are capable of doing two things at the same time. A more accurate description of what people are doing when they think they are multitasking is switch-tasking. It is actually quite draining for the brain to switch from one task to another.

"Your attention is fragmented, which means you will not be able to perform any tasks to the best of your ability compared to when you had done each task one at a time.”

Imagine your brain has a spotlight that can only shine on one task at a time. When we multitask, the spotlight moves from task to task and you tend to drain a lot more energy versus when you focus one project, complete it and then move to the next, explains Dr Afridi.

Are women better multitaskers? 

Studies show that men tend to think they’re better at multitasking than they are in reality, and women tend to think they’re worse than they really are. According to medical research studies, multitasking increases errors, the more tasks at hand, and the higher the chances of error. Due to the shift between tasks, the brain has to restart/refresh each time it is returning to a task, which in turn prolongs the period and efficiency in which a task can be completed. “Although the general thought is that women are better multitaskers than men, there is little evidence to support this,” says Sarah Abou-Saleh, Healthcare Informatics Specialist from the US.

“Some studies suggest that with training, multitasking may improve amongst some individuals. My experience is that if I am in a good mood with good rest then I can handle multitasking better.”

Multitasking at Work 

Employers have long encouraged multitasking as a means of increasing employee productivity, but new research shows that it may do more harm than good. Several studies have shown that people who multitask quite a bit experience greater problems focusing on important and complicated tasks, memory impairment of new subject matter, difficulty learning new material and increased stress levels. This can ultimately lead to problems in delivering a company’s products and services efficiently and competitively.

In theory, with multitasking it seems like you’re getting more done, but since our brains aren’t built to constantly task-switch, multitasking has the following negative effects:

It slows you down Contrary to popular belief, multitasking does not save time as you take longer to finish a project

You make mistakes Especially if one or more of your activities involves critical thinking It stresses you out

Constant access to emails Message notifications and access to work emails stresses individuals out. There is no downtime, even when they are away from work or on a family holiday

Missing out on life Because you’re too busy doing multiple things at once, while you technically may be looking at your surroundings, there is nothing actually registering in your brain

Impacted memory As you miss important details when you are busy trying to do two tasks at the same time

It ruins relationships As your smartphone and texting comes in between spending quality time with your partner, it shuts down communication 

Over-eating Being distracted at mealtimes can prevent your brain from fully processing what you’ve eaten and this may make you hungry in a short time

Dampened creativity Your brain may be so focused on the task at hand that it takes up all the space for temporary memory, thus leaving little room for creative problem solving

Mindful living 

If multitasking has so many negative implications, how do we tackle this? Mindfulness is one way we can train our brain to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. It is something we all naturally possess, but is more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis. Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodelling its physical structure.

Some easy tips to practice mindfulness

Be fully present with what you are doing; chances are you will give more and get more when you focus on one task at hand. If you’re eating, just eat. If you are checking email then just focus on the task at hand. It is simple tip but very difficult to practice.

Turn off notifications on your phone/apps and only use them when you are scheduled to use it. This way you will not be distracted with the task on hand and focus on one thing at a time.

Go back to basics as sleeping, eating and rest are essential for a good, happy and healthy life.

Being busy versus being productive, do not confuse the two. Being busy does not mean you are doing important and meaningful work. Check in with yourself often and see if you are living the life that suits you.

Let your mind wander. Our brains were never meant to process as much information as we are processing now. It’s okay to sit on the metro, stand in a grocery line and let your mind wander rather than stare at your phone’s screen. Look around and engage with your environment — it lets your mind rest.