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How Multi-tasking Can Lead to Burnout

Multi-tasking makes you less productive - and can contribute to stress and burnout

IMAGINE YOUR BRAIN is like a computer and you have a number of tabs open at the same time.

The computer works, but maybe it’s a bit slow. It takes a bit longer to switch from tab to tab. Well, that’s your brain. The more tasks you have on the go at any given time, the slower you are to switch between them.

Now imagine you shut down some of the tabs that are open on your computer – suddenly switching from tab to tab is faster.

Multi-tasking may seem like the only option you have to get through the enormous workload you face every day. But the hard reality is that multi-tasking doesn’t work.

In fact, it reduces your ability to complete each task efficiently and productively and that can result in added stress in your day, each and every day.

If you’re thinking, ‘But I multi-task all the time, therefore I can multi-task’, let me explain the science behind it.

The term multi-tasking was originally used to describe the workings and wiring of a computer, not human beings.

In reference to computers, the term was used to describe how they could alternate between multiple tasks, i.e. switch back and forth between tasks.

Over time the term was taken out of context and became a way of describing people’s ability to work simultaneously on numerous tasks.

Even computers can’t work on numerous commands or tasks simultaneously. They can, however, switch between tasks at lightning speed without having to think, get emotionally involved or feel resentful at doing too much work.

But ask a computer to do too much, like having too many tabs open, and it will perform more slowly and may even freeze and shut down!

There is a big difference between being able to ‘do’ two or more things at once – obviously, you can walk and talk, or eat and read at the same time – and being able to focus on two things at once.

We can’t think two different things at the same time. This is also why mindfulness is so good at helping to relax and calm our body and brain.

Researchers at Stanford University have found that multi-tasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time.

The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with different forms of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

Research has also shown that people who work in offices are interrupted approximately every 11 minutes of their working day and they then spend almost a third of the day recovering from these distractions.

And with this level of distraction, we still put pressure on ourselves to complete our tasks, meet deadlines and think that multi-tasking will get us through our day.

‘But I’m really good at multi-tasking!’ People often brag about their ability to multi-task; it’s something they genuinely believe they are really good at and maybe even think they have a special skill for.

The lovely researchers at Stanford University examined this possibility. In their research, they tested groups of people based on their ability to multi-task and their belief that they did it well and that it boosted their work performance.

The results showed that those people who multi-task a lot, and feel that it boosts their performance, were actually worse at multi-tasking than the people who preferred to do a single task at a time.

The multi-taskers actually performed worse in their work because they had more trouble organising their thoughts, and they were slower at switching from one task to another. Brains are not computers.

Multi-tasking reduces your productivity because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the ability to perform both tasks successfully.

So shut down your mental computer tabs!

I want to highlight one area that I think is really important. There is research on just about everything we do in regard to our behaviour and what happens to our body, brain and emotions.

One of the many interesting facts about the research into multi-tasking comes from researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK. They compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains.

They found that high multi-taskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex (in the front part of the brain), a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

The research showed that continually putting pressure on this part of the brain through trying to multi-task may result in a reduction in our empathy levels, our cognitive (rational) thinking and our ability to control our emotions.

Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained the implications of this:

“I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure,” he said.

Knowing this should be enough to make you think twice about digital multi-tasking!

If you’re prone to multi-tasking or believe that you are unique and have a special skill in the art of multi-tasking, you may want to rethink and change this habit.

Multi-tasking in meetings and other social settings (texting, sending emails and trying to be present in where you are and who you are with) also indicates low self-awareness and social awareness, and these two emotional intelligence skills are vital to how we interact with others in work and at home.

So every time you multi-task you aren’t just harming your performance in the moment; you may be damaging an area of your brain that’s critical to your future and reducing two vital emotional intelligence skills.

Attempting to multi-task is causing you stress, whether you realise it or not.

As such sustained attempts to multi-task could also contribute to burnout,  which is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion and shares similar symptoms with depression. 

I have personal experience of burnout and I have developed a 12-week plan to help people to overcome the condition. Reading it will also help anyone suffering from stress or who feels they might be at risk of Burnout. 

Stop trying to do everything at once. Instead learn the beauty of saying no, rethink your boundaries and regain your power, passion and sense of purpose. 

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