Does Multitasking Make Us More Efficient? Not So Much…

Does Multitasking Make Us More Efficient? Not So Much…

January may kick off the calendar year, but for me Autumn marks the start of a new work year. It’s time to shake off the last vestiges of summer and plunge back into the rhythm of business–and busyness. The crisp, cool air, nature’s riotous color show, and the fragrant scent of everything from farm stand apples to boxes of unsharpened pencils going into brand new book bags awakens our senses. Everything feels fresh, promising, and full of energy.

Here in New York City, things are buzzing. Early fall brought the annual UN General Assembly, a visit from the Pope, and the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park with Beyonce headlining a star-studded concert for 60,000 attendees–all in the same week. The following week brought the presidents of the US and Russia. It was truly an impressive display of a city performing some monumental multitasking of the traffic variety.

But sending our efforts in too many directions at once can have a real downside too, as more activity doesn’t necessarily translate into increased productivity, smooth flow, or fluid motion. Ask any frazzled New Yorker how their cross-town commute to work went in the midst of all the hubbub.

Our new technology is not helping, either. Smartphones, ubiquitous connectivity, and microchip technology that tracks our whereabouts to the ends of the earth were supposed to free us up from mundane tasks so that we could concentrate on the important stuff – you know, hands-free.

What’s actually happened is that we’ve become a society of multitaskers. We’ve been laden with tools meant to help us negotiate 10 lbs of activity through the proverbial 5 lb pipeline, and now find ourselves fielding multiple and diverse tasks simultaneously in an effort to meet deadlines and expectations that feel progressively less attainable. We’ve moved toward a standard of being “at work” all day every day, using that constant connectivity to fieldwork questions–that could probably wait–from the dinner table, the bedroom, our vacation in the desert, our kid’s soccer field. We are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but wherever we are, we’re doing several things at once.

The aim of all this busyness may be increased productivity, but scientists and researchers have taken notice of the true cost of multi-tasking. According to researcher David Myer, switching back and forth between two tasks actually increases the time to complete each by as much as 25%. (More on that in this video clip

A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that sending emails while talking on the phone can decrease IQ by as many as ten points. From the perspective of cognitive function, you’d be better off binge watching Saved By The Bell reruns. Or smoking pot. And the cognitive impairment isn’t necessarily temporary, according to a 2014 study from the University of Sussex. Subjects who frequently multitasked had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. Pretty scary stuff!

In yoga we endeavor to cultivate balance, presence, and moderation. We nurture connections, not just to our own breath, mind and body, but also to our immediate and extended families and friends, work associates, and the world around us. Finding ways to consolidate our energy and focus on what’s most important in each moment is a great way to strengthen those connections.

How do you send yourself in too many directions? Can you move away from multi-tasking and become more present in each moment? Here are a few ideas on what that might look like:

  • Make meaningful eye contact. Leave your phone at the coat check and enjoy dinner out with friends without simultaneously texting the to others about unrelated matters. Or sending snaps of your food to Instagram.
  • Let your colleagues know that the only figures you’ll be reviewing while on vacation in Paris are the ones in the sculpture court of the Louvre.
  • Close your email window and hang a “do not disturb” sign on your cubicle the next time you write a report. Or invest in some of the productivity software that shuts down social media while you are working so you won’t be tempted.

What do you do to be more mindful of your attention and productivity?