People have long tended to marvel at the ability of high achievers to do a hundred things at once. But as technology has made it easier to stay on top of email, social media, news and work at all times — in addition to keeping up with daily life tasks such as errands and family appointments — it’s not just those high achievers who are attempting to live a life of multitasking.
But while multitasking may sound like a good thing, especially as life gets busier and more complicated, that doesn't mean it's a healthy choice for everybody.
“Pursuing a behavior in multitasking is not something that people can particularly work on expanding,” says Dr. Joseph Fanelli, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health services at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago. “A person’s innate ability to categorize things, make lists and take on tasks is something that is acquired subconsciously as they grow. Some people have a higher threshold for stress and activity, and perhaps adapt multitasking as a form of organization. Other people, however, have a lower threshold for stress and anxiety, and may become easily overwhelmed or overstimulated. Multitasking may be more difficult for them.”
Because multitasking is not for everyone, there are a number of pros and cons to consider before trying to complete a variety of activities at once.
On the positive side, multitasking:
- allows a person to use his or her brain to organize, prioritize and complete projects or tasks.
- can help expand one’s knowledge base on a variety of topics.
- is generally seen as a way to more efficiently use one’s time by combining routine activities such as answering the phone and checking emails or listening to an audiobook while cooking.
On the downside, multitasking:
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- can overwhelm some people, ratcheting up anxiety levels, causing distraction and hurting the quality of the tasks at hand.
- can contribute to serious mental health issues in more extreme cases.
“For people who are ill-equipped to handle it, multitasking can lead to impaired cognitive control and regulation of emotions, impair working memory, and result in reduced relationship satisfaction,” says Dr. Syed Ahmed, a neurologist with Advocate Medical Group in Chicago. “I’ve seen more relatively younger people coming in for perceived memory problems, which actually are the result of lack of concentration, lack of focus and undertaking multiple tasks.”
Ahmed says those looking to multitask should prioritize projects, stay focused and set time limits to complete specific tasks. By doing so, Fanelli agrees, even those who are not natural-born multitaskers can find ways to enjoy the efficiency benefits of the process without getting overwhelmed by the stress of trying to keep all the plates spinning.
“To be a successful multitasker, make short lists, and check things off daily,” Fanelli says. “Create a vision board with both short- and long-term goals, celebrate your completion of certain tasks, and don’t say ‘yes’ to everything.”
And regardless of how adept one is at multitasking, Fanelli says there’s a limit to how effective the behavior can be, which is why it’s always good to remember that the old-fashioned notions of teamwork and sharing still have value in today’s fast-paced, individualistic world.
“Even as a multitasker, remember that you can and should rely on the people around you to help with things," he says.