Is monotasking the new multitasking?

Asia's Tech News Daily

Is monotasking the new multitasking?
© C.J. Burton Switching constantly between tasks can lead to burnout, according to research. Photo: Getty

Shruti Verma, 45, couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but she felt a gnawing tiredness throughout her waking hours last year. The computer analyst from New Delhi was eating healthily, taking her vitamins and even sleeping well, but her chores-packed life gave her a feeling of “not being in control”.

“I was proud of my multitasking skills – eating meals, checking my email, responding to a text, watching the news and talking to my spouse all at the same time. My two teenage kids called me ‘superwoman’. I was. Until my head exploded.”

I was programmed to think multitasking will help me accomplish more. But it was ruinous for my health

Shruti Verma, computer analyst and mum of two

Verma was hospitalised last year for chronic fatigue, after which doctors advised her to slow down and see a wellness counsellor. The latter’s prescription was simple: “Try doing one thing at a time.”

“It wasn’t easy to begin with,” says Verma, “because I always felt there’s so much to do; how will things get done one at a time? Besides, I was programmed to think multitasking will help me accomplish more. But it was ruinous for my health.”

Is monotasking the new multitasking?
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Over three months, Verma says she forced herself to switch to “monotasking” – the art of doing one thing at a time, as well taking short breaks throughout the day to sip green tea, chat to a colleague, tune into some soothing music and occasionally do nothing at all. “The change felt like mini meditations in a still action-packed day and helped me take charge of my life,” she says.

Multitasking compromises the quality of your work while robbing you of the joy of savouring your achievements

Sneha Malhotra, wellness counsellor

The pandemic has been challenging for all, but especially so for working mothers who suddenly found they had too many plates spinning at the same time. With limited domestic help, children kept home from school, a homebound spouse and their own professional commitments, many felt at once overworked yet underproductive if they weren’t multitasking.

Despite such exigencies, however, doctors have been increasingly advocating the perils of multitasking. “It is not only a health hazard, but also compromises the quality of your work while robbing you of the joy of savouring your achievements or intimate moments with family,” says Sneha Malhotra, a wellness counsellor from Mumbai. “While multitaskers claim to initially get a dopamine rush from their high productivity, in reality multitasking splits our focus and gives us a false sense of accomplishment.”

I was trying to be everywhere and do everything perfectly … and there was a continuous feeling of being overwhelmed

Komal Seth, businesswoman

Malhotra says she has had many clients complaining of burnout owing to a constant switching between tasks while working from home. “We forget there’s a price attached to this mental task-switching,” she says. The prefrontal cortex, which allows humans to concentrate, Malhotra explains, has to switch between rules and goals because our brain can’t do two things at once. As a result, she says, “multitasking releases stress hormones and adrenalin, which can trigger long-term ailments if not controlled”.

The case is more severe for women who spread themselves too thin by constantly flitting between household chores, caregiving needs and professional commitments. This is exactly what Komal Seth, founder of travel PR company Linkin Reps in Delhi, went through last year.

“Before Covid, I was travelling non-stop for work as well as managing my company, employees and home. I was trying to be everywhere and do everything perfectly and I could see how it was wearing me down. My shoulders and back were constantly strained, and there was a continuous feeling of being overwhelmed.”

However, when travel came to a grinding halt and Seth started working from home, she began doing things at her own pace organically and the results were extremely rewarding. “I found myself experiencing life fully in each moment, and with more calm and focus than ever before. I also experienced higher satisfaction in accomplishing each task and the quality of my work was so much better. I’ve since switched to monotasking,” she says.

Monotasking is also backed by science. A study titled Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, published as far back as 2014 by Stanford University professors, found that the human brain is engineered to focus on one thing at a time. Another 2014 study, published in the Understanding and Preventing Suicide collection of peer-reviewed journal Plos One found that multitasking could whittle down grey matter density in parts of the brain, and that multitaskers may have less grey matter in their brain than monotaskers. The findings emphasise up to 40 per cent of productivity is lost when we multitask because it takes more time and we keep making mistakes ranging from small typos to major oversights. Psychologists call this loss of productivity “switching cost”.

Going further back, to 2012, a research paper by cognitive scientist David Meyer from Michigan University demonstrated that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges that can make multitasking “problematic”. The study revealed the more we multitask, the less we accomplish.

Monotasking makes us feel less reactive to our surroundings and helps us to choose how to respond

Dr Prateek Parikh, cognitive expert

Additionally, doctors explain that while it seems multitasking is the ticket to fast-tracking work, you may actually be taking longer to complete tasks because of “constant context-switching, which can trigger brain shrinkage and short-term memory loss”, says Malhotra.

On the contrary, monotasking – as the act of mindfully focusing on one thing and being fully present – helps you feel more centred. More therapists are introducing their clients to activities such as “pause rituals”, “mindful tasking” and an “immersive work mode” to tackle multitasking-related fatigue.

“The first step is to recognise that multitasking is highly overrated. Practical results and countless studies prove this amply,” says Dr Prateek Parikh, a cognitive expert at Max Hospital in New Delhi.

To monotask effectively, the physician recommends that you decide on two tasks that absolutely have to get done over the span of a day. Commit a 20-minute block of time to a single activity, task or project by setting an alarm so you can concentrate. Reduce external distractions, such as noise and excess lighting. Choose a clean and quiet room with soft lighting, adding noise-cancelling headgear or playing music through your headphones to improve your focus and productivity. “You will automatically witness an improvement in the quality of your work and your own well-being,” Parikh suggests.

This approach to work, he says, is akin to mindfulness, which advocates staying with a single object of awareness for a period of time to train the mind to focus. “This also makes us feel less reactive to our surroundings and helps us to choose how to respond.”

As musical genius Mozart put it: “The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.”

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