Multitasking is not a new concept in the workplace and much research has been done on the topic for decades. Some people are proponents of it, digging for solutions on how to optimize your multitasking to get more done. Others hate the practice and there are plenty of studies proving that it harms your productivity. One thing all sides agree on is that multitasking can increase your stress levels and you need to keep that in check.
What Is Multitasking?
Taking a step back, for the purposes of this post, multitasking comes in two forms. First, there's the practice of doing multiple items at once. For example, checking emails and writing code while on mute during a conference call. The other, slightly harder-to-define, form of multitasking is alternating between tasks, without finishing one first. This is also the more common type of multitasking that is a reality for nearly all office workers. Many of us are checking email every 15-30 minutes while bouncing back and forth between projects.
How Multitasking is Stressing You Out
We won't get into the debate of whether or not you should multitask. As already noted, for some, it's nearly impossible to eliminate it all together. It is important, however, to recognize that you need to manage it to reduce your stress and better serve your clients. We first need to understand what the brain is doing when we multitask. Studies have shown that although we believe we're thinking about many items at once, the brain is more similar to your web browser, going back and forth between different tabs. It can only focus on one tab at once. Each time you go to a different task, it must use energy to open the other one and reprocess what's happening. Too much of this can cause burnout and even lead to anxiety. If we agree that multitasking harms productivity, then we can understand how it causes more stress because you start missing deliverables, submit bad work and it can all snowball into more negativity. In addition, the result of switching between projects can deteriorate your focus and, in turn, your ability to retain information. On the other hand, if we subscribe to the belief that multitasking has benefits and improves productivity, studies continue to show that stress is inevitable. Interestingly,one study found that even when multitasking makes you more productive, you're still likely to feel as though you weren't productive which, you guessed it, leads to stress! Being a master multitasker also creates habits of needing to check-in. This causes stress when you find yourself in situations where you suddenly can't regularly check emails or work on multiple items.
Taking the Stress Out of Multitasking
Certainly, if multitasking isn't for you, the best solution is to eliminate it. Monotasking takes more discipline, but as noted a couple times already, many productivity experts swear by it. They say it allows you to be present in the moment and complete tasks faster. To make it more of a reality in your job, you can monotask by creating sub-tasks and mini-goals. For example, rather than saying, "I'm going to focus on writing my resume and will not do anything else until it's done", you would say "For the next hour I'm going to focus on writing a summary of my Project Management experience in the Oil and Gas sector." If you want to continue multitasking, that's great too. Here are a few quick tips that will help you get to where you want to be, and reduce your stress:
Use the right tools. There are plenty of apps to help you out with this and the most basic tool is a pen and paper. Write to-do lists and take notes on where you're at with each task before switching. This prevents you from using energy when picking up where you left off.
Limit distractions. Multitasking is fine, but sometimes it's toxic. Turn off your notifications so you control when you check email, not the other way around.
Know what requires your full attention. Sometimes you cannot multitask. Especially with more complex items or in subjects you're still new and need all your brain power. Turn off the music, close out your email, and save all other projects for another day.
Practice! Like everything, practice makes perfect and multitasking is no different. Set your own routines and processes until you find a system that works for you.