Women may be more susceptible to the multi-tasking myth than men, thinking they are hard-wired to balance the budget, the boss, the baby and the 25 friends coming to the garden party barbecue next Saturday. Result? Stress, fatigue, fall -out with partner and a general sense of being put upon and never really getting things done the way they were intended. It is no wonder that women suffer from anxiety at twice the rate men do, and 1 in 4 women will need treatment for depression at some time, compared to 1 in 10 men.
The myth of the multi-tasking Superwoman is partly to blame. Women are less likely to say no to a perceived need, even when they know they don’t have the time, and also worry more about hurting someone’s feelings or being thought incompetent by the boss.
The trouble is, women are letting themselves down by trying to be all things to all (mostly) men, and end up experiencing symptoms ranging from gastro-intestinal upsets to chronic fatigue and hospitalisation as a result, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.
The truth is that multi-tasking doesn’t really exist – something always has to give, and that ‘give’ could be deadly. What has been called multi-taking is in fact task-switching which weakens both attention and productivity because of the mental control adjustments required to re-focus on each chore. Scientists call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). But while it is a helpful skill, dangers can occur when psychological switching ‘costs’ conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.
Moreover, the greater the number of tasks and the more frequently the switching takes place, even the few seconds it takes can add up to a big waste of productive time – up to 40 percent – as well as increase the rate of error. In a simple example, a 2008 study revealed that drivers took longer to reach their destinations when they chatted on their cell phones, and the statistics on traffic accidents and cell phone use are alarming.
The first way to solve the problem, according to psychologists, is to recognize that multi-tasking is a myth best overcome by doing things in batches, quite simply achieved by sorting chores into categories such as ‘accounts’, email, or finishing the marinade before starting on the pies. Once you learn to keep yourself on task, you’ll find that there are far less spills, breakages, confusing text messages and angry bosses or partners, plus you’ll be much more fun at your own party.
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