Online classes, looming work deadlines, constant Zoom catchups with the team, piling dishes in the sink, abandoned laundry, restless and over-stimulated toddler, constantly hungry children, unending complaints from ageing parents, partners buried deeper in work than you, and watching helplessly as ‘me-time’ goes down the drain – we have been stressed.

While we once prided over our super power to multitask, and did so with a smile on our face, and a tune on our heels, the dark clouds of stress and tension hover above our heads today. Furthermore, Covid decided to give us an unwelcoming version update to our ‘normal’ lives, and the implications have been nerving.

Juggling multiple tasks have shot our stress levels to an all-time high, and the cumulative status of our mental well-being lying at an all-time low. Is multitasking really that effective today? Is the one skillset that we have been made to believe is the holy grail of excellence at both the workplace and home, in fact an urban myth?

Apparently, yes.

Multitasking and increased stress

According to studies conducted during the Covid-19 lockdown period, people witnessed severe stress levels, anxiety, sleep disorders, burnouts, and a general dive into a cesspool of mental well-being concerns, unable to cope being the efficient multitasker most of us proudly claimed to be. Women, in particular, suffered the more severe brunt of this issue, especially in households that had younger children and ageing elders.

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Fern Mcgahey and her husband, both teachers, had to take classes that went completely remote and online during last year’s lockdown period. As well as the schoolwork, they had to look after their then four-year old daughter. “Multitasking is perhaps helpful in the work field, but as a mother you can only focus on one thing at a time. While spending quality time with the kids, it isn’t advisable to be checking your work emails, for instance. Following the lockdown last year, and when we were all working from home, I made it a point to have everyone out of the house at 5pm daily to just get out and get some fresh air. Splitting time between tasks can be helpful,” said the learning support assistant at the Dubai American Academy.

Fern, who is also a home organiser at Calm the Clutter, however, feels it is important to compartmentalise tasks across a day so that one can dedicate time for different tasks and they will not interfere with each other. “As an organiser it makes sense to apply the principle of monotasking, however as a teacher I may need to work around managing multiple tasks yet remaining focused on the one job at hand.” In her personal experience she has felt that dedicating time to prepare before tasks could also come in handy while planning the day ahead.

While the solution is handy and effective, it may not be applicable for everyone. There could be external forces coming into play that causes disruptions in task, and time management. The pandemic, for instance, or in some cases even the natural process of ageing.

“I am a fan of multitasking – it helped me achieve things I want. However, I have realised that with age I am not able to do as many things simultaneously as I would have been able to do when I was younger,” says Dipti Jinoy, a Reinsurance Officer at Dubai Islamic Insurance and Reinsurance Co. PJSC. Having had to work, manage a household, and get chores done around the house took a toll on her stress levels and health, slowing her down significantly to recuperate and recover. “There are several things that are still pending on my list of personal goals. I intend to get them all done subsequently, although this time in a slower and more focused manner, taking one thing at a time,” she adds.

This is precisely what clinical counsellor and hypnotherapist, Dr. Annette Schonder advised, “There’s a time and place for everything. Sometimes we need to do more than one thing simultaneously, while at other times we can afford to only focus on one thing at a time. In today’s time and age, we are swept into constant stimulation.

“It is draining to attempt multitasking continuously at all times, it creates stress. Hence, we need to be selective on how we approach a task and categorise them between monotasking and multitasking. We will benefit a lot from just slowing down a bit. It is all about how we train ourselves to react to a certain task in hand – we just need to listen to ourselves.”

Are women natural jugglers?

Dr. Schonder, the head psychologist with the Clinic for Health and Medical Care in the Dubai Health Care City, noted that traditionally, scientists have been saying that women are more natural multitaskers than men are. However, now they say this may not be the case and that being a multitasker is not gender specific. “Because of Covid-19 a lot of women may have found that multitasking was more stressful as they may have more responsibilities in a household, managing the home, children and their work as well. When it all comes together, all at once at one time is perhaps what drives them crazy.”

Cause for error

“Multitasking needs more concentration and it gives rise to a room for errors. This does not mean that monotasking is the way forward, however, it means that it just requires for people to take things one at a time. In today’s day and age of social media we are constantly watching and scrolling through different windows, our minds are on an overdrive.”

Interestingly, the challenges of multitasking were beginning to surface far before the pandemic. A study conducted by Stanford University had found that “multitasking makes people more distracted, LESS productive, and produces more errors.” In short, researchers concluded that multitasking may impair cognitive control.

This has been observed in particular with millennials who are more digitally-immersed and can be classified as “media multitaskers”. With digital technology and today’s multimedia channels of communications, things only amplified with more distractions adding to the list of ‘tasks’ including the aimless habit of scrolling through social media.

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“I think that multitasking can raise issues about being ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. For example, not playing to people’s strengths. Also, if priorities are not met, deadlines/targets can be missed. Far better to prioritise the tasks at hand, appoint them to people with the required skills, and ensure they are done to the best of your ability, to deadline,” feels Graham Brown, General Manager at Laidlaw Gulf LLC.

Single-tasking will allow in prioritising tasks systematically, and in accomplishing things with utmost quality and give you a sense of fulfilment, adds Felicito V. Hernandez. “In many cases, when we have had to complete several tasks, all at once, forcing us to multitask and not accomplish much, we were automatically driven to feel stressed. So, focusing on completing a task before starting another, I believe, is a concept that everyone should practice,” says Felicito, Operations Manager at GAC Corporate Academy.

How to find balance

There are ways we can inculcate a balance between our work, and home as well as social and domestic responsibilities. Dr Schonder shares five valuable tips:

1. Invest some time in breaking complex tasks down into manageable components.

2. Work with a to-do list and tick off one task at a time as you go along. 

3. Practice setting boundaries with colleagues and family member when you are engaged in a task. 

4. If you are feeling frazzled or stressed, take a moment of reflection to gage if you are doing too many things at once and recalibrate as you go along. 

5. Be mindful of habits that distract and create stimulus overload, such as checking social media accounts, our phones, or video clips. 

With a strong nudge from the global pandemic, more people seem to be gently leaning towards single tasking for both better productivity, and a better sense of wellbeing. As in the words of many wise corporate gurus, adopting a smarter way to work than a harder way is the way forward.

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