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Are you an Undercover Multitasker?

I discovered the concept of undercover multitasking during an operation to de-clutter my office. In my mind, ‘de-clutter office’ equated to one job and I approached the job as I had always approached re-organisation jobs – with gusto! Cupboards and drawers were emptied out, books were loosely allocated to various piles around the room and all over the place there was chaos. I stood there surveying the disorder in dismay. I couldn’t work out what I needed to do to reduce the mess in the quickest possible time and I felt overwhelmed by clutter. My back and shoulders tensed up, big time. I was stressed.

Several days later the office was still in disarray and I couldn’t bear looking at it. As luck would have it, however, I happened to be meeting an ex-project manager friend that day and I mentioned the situation. She said the most sensible thing I could have heard. “Do one thing at a time.” I thought I had been. As far I was concerned, I’d been doing one de-cluttering job. Only I hadn’t. I’d been attempting to de-clutter more than a dozen shelves, drawers and cupboards, all at the same time, undercover of the so called ‘one de-cluttering job’. How had I not realised?

Many of us multitask on a daily basis without realising it. For example, ‘tidy the garage’ sounds like one job, but if you’re sorting out your box of screws while putting up a new shelf and fixing the workbench then you’re multitasking, and that applies whether you’re jumping around between tasks or moving straight from one job to another with barely a breath in between. If you’re planning a birthday party and juggling the search for a venue with booking the entertainment and ordering food, that’s multitasking.

The problem is, multitasking is not always helpful. It can actually make it more difficult for us to make decisions*, hence my inability to work out next steps in the ‘de-clutter office’ scenario, and it can increase our stress** – see also ‘de-clutter office’ scenario. In fact, I believe that many of us experience stress when multitasking but because we’re trying to do so much and our minds are flitting around all over the place, we don’t even notice the tension in our neck or the hunched shoulders.

So the next time you’re cooking dinner for family or friends and you catch yourself making the main course at the same time as preparing dessert, laying the table and feeding the dog his tin of Doggie Delish, take a moment to notice how you feel. If you’re experiencing stress, take a pause, step back (go and do something completely different for a while if you can) and then try a ‘one thing at a time’ approach. And then see how that feels. Perhaps, like me, you’ll find it to be a real revelation!

© Michelle Drapeau, 2019


*A Unified attentional bottleneck in the human brain by Tombua et al., 2011.
**The Multitasking Framework: The Effects of Increasing Workload on Acute Psychobiological Stress Reactivity, by Wetherell & Carter, 2013.