Workplace burnout is a global problem bringing with it a wave of psychological distress. Ever increasing workplace demands, low levels of perceived control and lack of support are just a few factors found to contribute to its rise. In order to stay afloat in this fast-paced, electronically connected environment most of us fall back on multitasking as a method of tackling heavy workloads. Unfortunately, it turns out that multitasking not only contributes to symptoms of burnout but is also damaging to workplace productivity and stress levels.
What the research says about Multitasking
The term ‘multitasking’ is really a misnomer because our brains aren’t at all designed to perform tasks simultaneously. Sure, we can rub our head and pat our tummy after focusing our attention. However, as tasks get more complex, such as reading emails while chatting on the phone, we are in fact task switching at a rapid pace. Multitasking gives the illusion that we are being efficient but it has the opposite effect with cumulative lags of attention each time we switch tasks. It’s estimated that we can lose as much as half a second every time we stop to check an email that pops up and then after we finish reading the email it can take a full minute before we get our attention back into the task in which we were previously engaged. This can add up to serious time wasting if you work in an environment where you are constantly interrupted by phone calls, email notifications and walk-in visitors.
Multitasking has shown damaging effects on the quality and speed of our output, it impacts our working memory making us less organised and scattered in our thoughts, it reduces our analytic reasoning and can even result in a drop in IQ. It is little wonder that over time our brain becomes hard wired to constantly seek out new stimuli making us highly distractible and prone to skimming information rather than achieving a greater depth in knowledge. On the health front, chronic multitaskers present with increased stress responses, anxiety and reduced fulfilment in their work- all key features of a burnt out employee.
How to retrain a multitasking mindset
The good news is there are several ways we can change our workplace habits and retrain our brain to attend to one task at a time. Try one or all of these methods and then spend some time at the end of each day reviewing how productive, alert and calm you felt to determine which tips work best for you:
- Section the day up into allocated slots of time where you respond to emails, return phone calls and have telecommunication/appointment-free sections of the day.
- Turn off notifications on your devices so that pop up alerts, ‘bings’ and other visual and auditory interruptions don’t distract you while you are working.
- Make time to interact with colleagues and share in a conversation.
- Practice formal mindfulness meditations to strengthen your brain’s ability to focus on one task at a time such as your breath or the sounds in your environment.
- Take a break once a day where you drink a cup of tea or coffee with mindful intention. Don’t check you phone or read over material during your tea break. Simply focus on the aroma, warmth, taste and visual splendour of your drink from your first sip to your last.
- Try to keep a section of your office space free from clutter and aim to maintain an organised in and out-tray system. Piles of paper and mess can be demotivating.
- Practice focusing all your attention on the task at hand and stick with it until completion. If need be, break larger tasks into smaller ones to simplify your work process.
- Take good care of yourself by getting enough sleep and incorporating regular exercise into your weekly schedule. A quick stroll is also great for increasing the blood flow to your brain and improving concentration.
- Eat foods that fuel the brain for long periods while avoiding those that give a sudden surge of energy followed by a crash. Too many coffees, energy drinks and sugary treats are good examples of items to avoid.
What are your thoughts on multitasking? Are you a super worker who can juggle numerous tasks at once or does this approach make you super stressed? We’d love to hear from you.
She operates her own private practice in sunny Gold Coast, Australia and is a regular guest speaker at schools and health events.
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