The Death of Multitasking and Rebirth of Unitasking

How many times have you heard someone say, "I get so much done because I am able to multitask"? Usually said with a smug little grin. Whilst it has been a popular thing to be able to attempt, multitasking is on its way out of our lives, that is if we really do want to become more efficient and productive.

It has been shown in numerous studies that people who try and multitask actually lose efficiency and productivity levels drop. The guy on the phone, checking his emails whilst telling their work colleague what to do maybe be doing three things at once however he is doing three things at once very badly and not efficiently enough to be doing the job correctly.

Studies by Professor David Meyer at University of Michigan showed that young adults who had to perform two math tasks, back and forth, showed that it took longer doing the tasks this way than it would have if they had done them separately.

Unitasking is the new way
Whilst unitasking has always been advocated in the past, it kind of died out when the birth of multitasking came into popular culture in the last 10 - 15 years. Multitasking was a phrase first used in 1966 to describe a computer performing more than one task at a time. Since then it has come to be synonymous with busy people on the go with a phone stuck to their ear, a baby on one arm, reading email and stirring a pot of pasta. It just doesn't work and it's only recently that scientists are telling us the same thing.

Our brains are wired to focus on one task at time. Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carried out a study whereby he scanned volunteers’ heads while they performed different tasks. He found that when there was a lot of visual objects in front of volunteers, only one or two objects tended to activate the brain. This means that the volunteers could only focus on one or two objects at any given time.

Stress caused by multitasking
Multitasking can literally cause stress. Due to the amount of time multitaskers take to flit between one job and another, they become less efficient and their brain literally slows down. So now we have a situation when all the tasks have not been completed, due to the brain slowing down, which causes stress levels to rise, which in turn leads to mistakes being made and stress levels rise even more. So it's no wonder that we feel frantic when we try to do too many things at once.

5 Ways to clear your head and start unitasking
Now the science bit is out of the way it's time to concentrate on unitasking.

1. Clear your space
Tidy desk - tidy mind, that's my motto. It's a strange thing but when our work desks are cleared, our minds seem clearer and become more focused on the task at hand. If your desk is very untidy and has paper, reports, books, magazines, stats lying all over it, your brain momentarily picks this up when you are not working. So when you get to working you could be thinking 'I've got that report to finish, I need to finish those stats, I need to show Steve that article in the magazine'. We still have lots of information to contend with in our minds. Whereas if our desk is completely free from clutter we are much more likely to focus and get the task at hand completed. This is also true at home, tidy house - tidy mind.

2. Clear your desktop
Another great clearing exercise is to clean up your desktop. Get those pdf files in one folder, get the word documents in one folder or categorize them and put them in a folder. Be sure to give your files good memorable names so you can search for them in the future. Don't name a file '1' as you will never be able to find it again in a year's time, give it a proper name like 'stats for week beginning 24th august 2009' and name all subsequent, similar, files in the same way. Put all your downloads into one folder as well so you don't clutter up your desktop.

Put a calming picture as your background. This is easy, just go onto Google type in a scene you have in mind into the search field, hit enter, click on images, go to advanced image search and choose the dropdown 'large file sizes' and you will get a decent sized photograph to put on your desktop as your background.

3. Don't open any programs that are not necessary
If you have to finish a report in Word make sure you only have Word open and no other program. The other programs, like your email client or browser, will distract you. Just have your main program open and reward yourself by checking your emails and web browser when you have completed the task at hand.

4. Turn off the phones and instant messaging
If you can divert your phones to another number or turn them off altogether and make sure you have voicemail on so callers can leave a message. Again, intrusions like the phone can cause you to lose track of what you are doing and it takes time for you to re-focus on the task at hand. Constant interruptions like this will almost guarantee that the report you were trying to complete will not get done until tomorrow and by that time you will feel a lot more stressed.

5. Tell others your intentions
If you have a lot of work colleagues coming up to your desk, tell them in advance that you need to finish an important task and for them not to interrupt if possible. Make light of it but make sure they know you are serious. Better yet, hide yourself in a room where they won't usually look for you, this way you will get a lot more done.

That's it, no longer will you be the brunt of 'I'm superior to you because I can multitask.' Multitasking is dead, unitasking is reborn!

@Steven Aitchison


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