With the internet in our pockets these days, multitasking seems to be at an all-time high. I’m a big multitasker myself, especially when I’m at home. After work, I move a million miles a minute: washing dishes, packing breakfast and lunch for the next day, prepping dinner, and picking up around the house – all while checking email each time my phone beeps. I race through these tasks, often dropping food on the floor, and I wonder if doing so many things at once is helping me be any more efficient?
According to countless research studies, it’s true that multitasking decreases your quality of work and slows you down. For example, writing an email and talking on the phone both use the same part of the brain. So, these competing tasks decrease the brain’s efficiency; you would be better off hanging up the phone and then taking the extra time to write the email. But what’s even worse is that multitasking could have adverse physical effects as well. A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2009) found that multitasking can trigger the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to a negative cycle: you feel stressed about the amount of work you have, so you multitask, thinking this will help you work faster and fit more into the day. Instead, you are slower, produce lower quality work, and feel even more stressed than before the multitasking.
So what’s the best way to work? Set aside uninterrupted blocks of 20 minutes at a time to work on a single task, and then take a 5 minute break in-between. After 3 blocks, take a more substantial break, for 15 to 20 minutes, and do something completely unrelated to your work (take a walk, read fiction, talk to a friend, have a snack). For students, an uninterrupted block means no TV on in the background, phone and iPad notifications silenced and out of sight, and no energetic siblings bounding around the room.
The good news? Researchers don’t consider listening to music while working to be multitasking because our brains have a special area that’s dedicated only to music. Blasting instrumental music may even increase productivity because you won’t be distracted by noise around you!