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Can we truly multitask?

It’s all in our heads... our long-term memory suffers, creativity is reduced

Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: As you read this, you might be drinking your coffee, having a conversation with your colleague and thinking about what you will be saying at a very important business meeting in the next hour. Multitasking is something that many of us believe we do on a daily basis. But, we are wrong.

According to a paper published in the US-based magazine Harvard Business Review, efficiency can drop by as much as 40 per cent when people try to multitask. Our long-term memory suffers and creativity is also reduced.

Dr Paul Atchley, professor of psychology at University of South Florida and the author of the paper, explains that our brain chooses which information to process.

He told Gulf News via email: “We do not multitask, we task-switch. Task-switching may occur rapidly so it seems like we are multitasking, but in reality, every time we switch between tasks, there is a small cost to performance. That cost adds up over time so that we never do multiple things at the same time with the speed and accuracy we do them one at a time.”

For example, when a person is talking on the phone and working on the computer at the same time, he or she will “literally hear less of what the client is saying”. This constant switching between tasks also requires certain regions of our brain that are used for willpower, “making us less able to ignore other distractions”.

Dr Earl K. Miller, right, picower professor of neuroscience at the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is of the same opinion — humans cannot truly multitask. Why?

He told Gulf News via email: “Our brain has limited capacity for simultaneous thought. We can only really think about one task at a time. You may think you’re doing two tasks at once, but you’re actually switching back and forth very rapidly and it has a negative impact on your work.”

He goes on to state that when a person toggles between two tasks, it requires a series of shifts. For example, if you were to interrupt something you were working on to check an email, going back to the original task will require your brain to expend energy in order to refocus and avoid any errors. The study published in the Harvard Business Review puts this time at up to 15 minutes.

Dr Miller said: “The prefrontal cortex, the very front of your brain, is the brain’s executive. It is the part of the brain we mainly use when we focus on tasks. We use it when we direct our thoughts and actions towards a goal. It is the part of the brain that weakens and fails when we get distracted or our resolve weakens and we try to multitask instead of focusing on one task at a time.”

So, you should perhaps put away that mug of coffee and focus on doing one thing at a time. However, when we spoke to Gulf News readers, they still believe multitasking, or switching between tasks, is an essential part of their daily lives.

Shaukat Khan, a Pakistani business owner based in Ajman, is one of them. Having started his own business in 2011, he says he has no choice but to perform multiple tasks at once to ensure everything is done on time.

He said: “Sometimes, you cannot rely on anyone else to do a task. We are constantly training people. But, the employees usually focus on one task and as boss, you have to see everything.”

He says the same would apply to someone running a household. Everything needs to be done on time and so the individual might sometimes have to multitask.

David Woodward, right, a British business owner based in Dubai, is also of the opinion that multitasking is necessary. He believes that the key to successful multitasking is to identify your priorities and plan accordingly.

He said: “If you focus on only one matter at a time, surely this would run the risk of the task becoming boring and routine, and you would become less likely to give your full effort into the task. On the other hand, multitasking is challenging and people perform better when under pressure.”

He does think, though, that a person’s creativity would be affected. He or she would have to find the easiest and most efficient solution to finish multiple tasks at once, and that isn’t possible for everyone.

He said: “One has to recognise one’s own limits and not take on too much. Everyone has different abilities at sports, learning, writing, speaking and remembering, and similarly everyone will have different levels of skill and success at multitasking.”

Omar Abu Omar, right, a Jordanian professional based in Dubai, would like to believe that he can juggle a few tasks at the same time. However, he is in agreement with the various studies that it does affect a person’s performance and outcome.

He said: “The quality of work might drop. However, it also depends on the competence level of the individual and how often he or she has done these tasks. They might be repetitive and routine tasks that have been done countless times in the past. But, it might not allow sufficient time to plan the task at hand and think it through.”

What do you think — can you successfully switch between tasks? Or would you rather just focus on one thing at a time? Let us know at readers@gulfnews.com

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