We talk about multi-tasking as though it’s an art to be mastered and when we feel we’ve got it sussed, we don’t half feel proud of ourselves. It seems to be the golden ticket to a promised land of empty inboxes and completed to-do lists where we can kick back and relax, basking in our productivity skills. There’s bad news, folks: there’s no such thing as multi-tasking.
Wh-wh-what?! Scientists have discovered that we can never truly do more than one thing at a time; our brains just can’t handle it. Instead, our brains switch back and forth, albeit quickly, between the tasks in hand, leading to that mind-numbing feeling we know so well. They’ve also found that, far from being an efficient way to do things, we’re more productive when we commit to doing just one thing at a time, one after the other – it takes less time to do that than it does to try to master all the things, all at once. When we attempt to multi-task, what we’re really doing is battering our brain and draining it of its energy reserves. In overloading and overheating our cognitive abilities, we’re putting ourselves under undue pressure and stress.
We also know, on some level, that multi-tasking doesn’t work because we never feel as though our work is done; we never make it to the ‘kick back and relax stage’ of our day. Instead we end the day frazzled and frustrated because our to-do lists seem to mushroom throughout the day rather than shrink. Once we do make it to bed at night, it’s not with a sense of accomplishment; it’s with all the things we didn’t get to do whizzing around our minds. We’re wired and tired; that irritating state of unrest at the exact point we desperately need some shut-eye.
When our to-do lists are the length of our arms, and then some, it feels as though multi-tasking is the only way. It’s certainly what we’re used to and we know how our brains don’t like change. But then, our brains don’t like multi-tasking, either. We’re darned if we do and darned if we don’t.
Fret not: we have options. We always have options. Firstly, we can sack off the things we’re doing out of a skewed sense of duty, the things that perhaps snuck in because our boundaries were wonky. We know the ones; the things looming in our calendars that we’re already trying to back out of. Just back out. We’re allowed to change our minds, we’re allowed to choose ourselves, we’re allowed to make the right decisions for us and our families. Hopefully, too, we’ll have stretched the time available to us by clocking off work and by reducing the time we’re on our smartphones.
And then we have the joy of batching! Batching is when we group tasks of a similar nature back to back. We do this without noticing already: we don’t brush one tooth now and come back later to do another; we brush them all at the same time. We don’t visit a supermarket umpteen times to fill our cupboards product by product; we tend to do a big shop all in one go. Batching tasks can also help minimise decision fatigue. Rather than plan our meals each day, we can plan (and even prepare them) in one go, once a week. We can do the same thing with planning our outfits for the week ahead, with housework, with errands, when we’re buying birthday cards, dealing with finances, responding to emails or social media notifications. Time isn’t the only valuable commodity that’s stolen when we multi-task; we strain and drain our brains too.
Extract from The Self-Care Project: How To Let Go Of Frazzle And Make Time For You by Jayne Hardy, published by Orion Spring on the 14th of December in trade paperback, available in eBook and audio too. Pre-order your copy here .
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