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The Cost Of Multitasking

Jan 05, 2023

Do you do multiple things simultaneously? Most people think that highly functional and effective people are capable of doing several things at the same time. Some people even take pride in being able to juggle multiple tasks. They think it is a symbol of success. In fact, this is not true in two different levels. Our brains are not designed to take care of two things all at once. The brain is switching rapidly from one task to another to make it appear as if we are taking care of multiple things concurrently.

At first glance, multitasking seems to be a great idea, to do more than one thing at once, to complete those assignments at the same time. The constant switching between two tasks costs the brain to pause and adjust between tasks. Even though many of the switches occur in less than an extra half a second for the brain to adjust, the more switching, the more time is wasted. In real life, one may require minutes to readjust after switching task or after being interrupted. David Meyer, Ph.D, who conducted research in multitasking, concluded that multitasking may cost up to 40% of one’s productivity.

Multitasking is essentially quick task switching back and forth. It causes stress especially when you are juggling important tasks. Think of you driving your car in a foggy day and talking on the phone with someone who is seeking your guidance to solve a complex math problem. Just writing about it makes me feel stressed.

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” – Publilius Syrus.

Multitasking over time actually costs us more time and decrease productivity. It causes more stress mentally because of the task switching and because of decrease of efficiency.

So what does this mean in our daily lives?

Let us focus on doing one thing at a time and retire the belief that multitasking is the key to getting things done efficiently. Multitasking is task switching in constant mode, and each switch increases the total toll of recovery time between tasks. Not to mention it is difficult to pay complete attention to two things simultaneously.

For fellow physicians, I suggest to organize your clinical day in such that multitasking is minimized.

Morning routine with a team huddle to start the day with a positive tone always helps.

Decide ahead of time the flow of seeing your patients, taking care of one patient at a time. It is more efficient to see the patient and complete all the orders and documentation on that patient before moving on to the next patient.

Decide to minimize the temptation of voluntary multitasking – for example, checking your personal email or social media in between patients. If it helps you not to look at your phone or work email, turn the notifications to silent mode. Set specific times during the day to check those in case there are urgent matters.

Instruct your staff to minimize interruptions when you are seeing patients. Delegate whenever possible.

Doing one thing at a time is more efficient. Multitasking is counter-productive. It is not even a thing because in reality you are doing task switching in high frequency. You end up being more productive doing one thing at a time than juggling multiple things all at once. Minimize the mental load of task switching which includes time for your brain to recover and reset between tasks.

Let us start the new year with less mental load and more focused single task work!

Are you ready to stop feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Are you ready to have more time to do what you want?


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