How to Manage Multitasking in Life

6 min read  |  September 14, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

With exponentially expanding technology, massive daily doses of information, and the demands of our digital and daily lives, humans are navigating an increasingly distracted world.

To keep pace, you may be required to switch between tasks, but by doing more, are you harming your professional and personal life?

It depends, says Bonnie Levin, Ph.D., a psychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “Multitasking is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ as each of us has a different level of tolerance for distraction. It’s not all positive or negative. It depends on the person and the context.”

Is there an upside to multitasking? 

“Some people are invigorated by competing demands for attention, and for them, multitasking may be stimulating and a way of maintaining a level of alertness. Also, for those who are bored, isolated, or lonely, multitasking can be stimulating,” Dr. Levin says. 

Consider a retired solo ager who, for reasons beyond their control, spends more time at home, cut off from social stimulation. 

For those individuals, “Downloading apps that offer educational programs or stimulating games, podcasts that expand the mind, and interacting with social media to connect with friends, can improve quality of life. Here, technology can be a savior,” Dr. Levin says.

But what about other settings – such as an office worker who needs to be free of distraction to create meaningful work? 

“For those who tend to be distracted by external stimuli, which can happen at any age, or even for those immersed in a busy life who are simultaneously being bombarded by technology that they cannot control, this can be overwhelming and interfere with productivity, leading to complaints that they can’t produce meaningful work,” Dr. Levin says.

Most jobs today require some degree of multitasking. 

Employees are switching back and forth between tasks, thinking about one set of demands, and then shifting to another while holding other important information in mind. 

“This phenomenon, frequently referred to as flexible set shifting, is actually quite complicated. While certain areas of the brain may be more preferentially involved in multitasking, it’s fair to say it’s a whole-brain event,” Dr. Levin says.

She believes that toggling between tasks, all of which are competing for our attention, can require intense focus, and “Sustained focusing can be fatiguing. You need breaks so you can restore.” 

Physical factors also affect your ability to do manage multitasking simultaneously. 

“If you’re hungry, dehydrated, or sleep deprived, it gets harder to multitask efficiently,” Dr. Levin says. 

Ultimately, the impact of handling multiple tasks depends on your tolerance and sensitivity to competing demands.

“People have different attentional and emotional thresholds,” Dr. Levin says. “Multitasking has to be evaluated against a background of how busy a person is, their ability to shut out stimuli, and their interest level” in the stimuli vying for their attention. 

If you’re feeling overstimulated by the influx of information streaming into your day, Dr. Levin suggests asking, “Does this information add value to my life?” 

It can be difficult to evaluate those questions when information arrives with the velocity of a firehose. 

“Another issue many people are just beginning to become aware of is that, given the constant flow of information from many different sources, it is becoming harder to discriminate between facts and facts mixed with misinformation,” Dr. Levin says.

Yet, she says that self-reflection, evaluation, and regulation give us more control over distractions. 

After reflecting on the role multitasking plays in your life, Dr. Levin suggests adopting some healthy habits. 

Stay present. Remind yourself to attend to the task at hand using conscious reminders such as Post-it notes, timers, or a phone app that maximizes focus.

Control your environment. If you need to reprogram a computer or write a proposal, shut your office door and turn off your phone alerts. If you work from home, try to set aside a space where you won’t be disturbed. 

Consider timing and situations. Where and when do you focus best? Dr. Levin finds it hard to work under fluorescent lights or if there is background music with a heavy beat. Some people require silence and solitude; others can function in a busy coffee shop. 

Eliminate some distractions. A “no phones at the dinner table” rule may improve family relations and focus. Streamline the stimuli coming into your life – the bedside stack of books you never read or the reoccurring social commitments you no longer find rewarding. Cross out or postpone a few items on your “to-do” list. 

Create a wind down ritual. When you need to relax before bed, Dr. Levin suggests reducing distractions.

“Shift away from constant stimuli. Reduce bright lights, big noise, and screen time. Before bed, do a ‘brain dump’ – write down everything that’s likely to distract you from sleep and put the list in a place outside of your sleeping space.” 

Build in a buffer. When possible, schedule space between projects and commitments. If a task takes longer than anticipated, you will have extra breathing room. 

Avoid distracted driving at all costs. “There are certain settings where it can be costly, even dangerous, to multitask,” Dr. Levin says. 

For example:

Whether you feel compelled by external demands or you derive satisfaction from achieving two or more things at once, multitasking doesn’t have to make or break your life. With self-awareness and self-discipline, you will know which plates to juggle and which to set down. 

Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to the UHealth Collective. She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.

Tags: Dr. Bonnie Levin, effective multitasking, improve your multitasking skills, prioritizing tasks

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