Many of us feel the need to respond to multiple demands by trying to do everything at once. But in doing so, we never really focus on one thing, which can impair cognitive ability. So why do we multitask? We often feel time poor and it can be difficult to know when to take a break or switch off, especially if we’re working from home more as a result of COVID-19. Let’s take a look at why being mindful could be more beneficial for your productivity levels – and your health – than multitasking.
You can do it all - just not at once
Most business owners face a constant stream of incoming information brought by email, phone enquiries and social media notifications – which may be increasing as more of our interactions move online or if we are working from home. The downside of checking every alert immediately while managing other business activities is that you will inevitably stop what you are doing multiple times throughout the course of a project. Stanford researchers found that when study participants dealt with multiple streams of information at once, they were unable to filter out the information that was irrelevant to the current task.
Our tip: Work in mindful intervals with a small break in between tasks – taking a moment between tasks to mentally shift your brain from the first task to the next. Once your attention has been refocused, give it 100% until it’s time to switch to the next task. When you are first starting this method, you could try setting a timer to hold you accountable to the time you have allocated to each task.
The business impact of multitasking
Multitasking can result in a loss of up to 40% of productive time due to the brief mental blocks created every time your mind switches tasks. But juggling several things at once is more than a timewaster – a lapse in concentration can make your more likely to slip up. For example, if you are speaking on the phone while writing an email, you could make a mistake like sending classified information to the wrong recipient, which could have serious consequences and result in reputational damage for your business.
Our tip: Productivity expectations come from the top down, so if your team feel like they have autonomy to work at their own pace, this can remove some of the pressure that fuels a constant need to do more in less time. You could encourage scheduled email checking (say, once every hour, instead of whenever a new email comes through), or another time management strategy that suits your business activities.
The health benefits of mindfulness
Multitasking has been found to increase stress, especially if every task is important. The body’s natural response to this stress is to pump more adrenaline and other stress hormones, which can put a strain on a person’s body over time. Chronic job-related stress can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion and physical conditions, like musculoskeletal pain and even heart disease. However, studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can help improve focus, reduce stress and even have a positive impact on your physical health. As more of us are working from home, it’s especially important to be more mindful of when work ends and time to unwind begins.
Our tip: Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean you need to dedicate an hour to meditation each day. Try taking one minute in between work tasks to sit down and focus on your breathing or go for a walk around the block at the end of the day without listening to music or checking your phone.
Rather than allowing technology to become a distraction, try using it to your advantage to minimise the temptation to multitask. You could trial things like muting certain program notifications for a period of time or subscribing your team to a meditation app like Headspace. Consider opening up the discussion with your team to discover what could help them work more mindfully.
This article was originally published on October 22nd 2014 and updated on October 22nd 2020.