One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Ron Swanson, the meat-loving, tax-hating, stern (but secretly loving) boss on NBC’s Parks & Recreation. According to Ron, one should “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” I love it so much I even bought a mug displaying this message. As silly and obvious as this idea may sound, I think it is some of the best advice ever given, even if it was from one fictional character to another.
In this world of constant connectivity, we often place a higher value on being able to complete more instead of being able to complete well. Multi-tasking, or focusing on multiple tasks at a time, seems a natural extension of this; with so much to do, who has time to work on only one thing? The problem with that line of thinking is that true multi-tasking isn’t possible. According to Psychology Today’s Dr. Susan Weinschenk, “People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead we switch tasks.” So rather than focusing on two or more things, we’re actually just moving back and forth between tasks, which costs us far more time than we realize. Dr. Susan Weinschenk points out, “Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.”
In addition, according to Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman’s article regarding memory in Forbes, we lose more than just work product when we attempt to multi-task. We may be endangering our short-term memory now and in the future. “Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness.”
Studies being conducted by the University of California San Francisco support this statement. Dr. Adam Gazzaley’s research, as detailed in The New York Times, shows that so-called ‘senior moments’ (for instance forgetting why you entered a room or what you needed from your car) are “not necessarily a memory problem per se, but often the result of an interaction between attention and memory.” Simply put, as we age it becomes harder to switch from task to task, and the accompanying lag presents itself as short-term memory loss. Long-term memory can also be affected, since “there [is] a relationship between people’s ability to develop long-term memories and the amount of time they spend focused on a particular experience…if interruptions make it difficult for older people to remember what they were doing in the short run, it could also hurt their ability to record those experiences over the long run.”
Dr. Chapman also cautions “Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.” According to the Mayo Clinic, “overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems [and] weight gain.” I think it’s safe to say that attempting to multi-tasking is not worth the risk of these memory and health issues, especially considering that it actually wastes more time than it saves. I, for one, will be taking it one task at a time from here on out; I hope you’ll join me.