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Is juggling a number of tasks, as we so often do, all that bad?

After years of hearing that the ability to juggle tasks is a professional virtue, experts now tell us that multi-tasking  makes us less accurate and up to 40 per cent slower. Unfortunately, it’s likely your work requires you to operate like a computer, running multiple programs at once – like Kerryn Tredwell, an employment litigation lawyer and partner at Hall & Wilcox. Tredwell has three computer screens on her desk. She may be working on a document on one screen, checking emails on another, and monitoring a court matter due to hit the press on the third – all while sitting in an open-plan office. “It can come at you from all angles,” says Tredwell.

So how does the average person deal with the onslaught of incoming information in today’s workplace? Are some people naturally better at multi-tasking? Here’s what the experts say.

Are those who claim to love multi-tasking really better at it?

Extroverts are much more likely to say they like multi-tasking than introverts, who typically prefer to focus on one thing at a time. However, preference for multi-tasking doesn’t translate into a higher ability. While extroverts tend to be quicker at task-switching, and don’t get as stressed by it, they are no more accurate than the slower introverts.

Does your ability to multi-task improve with practice?

Apparently not. Stanford University researchers (published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2009) found that heavy media multi-taskers perform worse on tests of task-switching ability.

Do people with expertise in a subject or job have an edge?

Experts can quickly, accurately and sometimes unconsciously complete tasks that were once quite demanding. This frees up their cognitive resources to perform other tasks. So, yes, experts can complete complex tasks proficiently with less risk of error. However, if something unexpected happens, they may not respond as effectively when multi-tasking.

Is it easier to multi-task when doing easy activities or using different senses?

Multi-tasking is fine for activities that are easy and familiar or that engage different senses, such as listening to background music while reading. However, for complex or unfamiliar tasks, multi-tasking remains a problem, even if using different senses. You might notice, for example, how you instinctively turn down the music in your car when you are lost and are trying to decipher directions.

Are women really better at multi-tasking?

Alas, there’s no scientific evidence to back this up.

What if I am truly exceptional?

Two people in every 100 are super-taskers, able to divide their attention without their performance suffering, according to psychologists David Strayer and Jason Watson, from the University of Utah. They also found that people who believed they were better at multi-tasking performed worse on a test – ouch!

So, unless you belong to the exceptional 2 per cent (and don’t just think you do), you should choose your tasks and spend your time wisely.

Here are a few multi-tasking tips:

  • Limit it to easy, familiar tasks that engage different senses. “There are some tasks that are easier to juggle because I can solve or decide on them quickly,” says Tredwell.
  • Set aside time for completing complex or unfamiliar tasks, so you can focus on just that. “About 30 per cent of my daily work requires undivided attention, such as preparing court documents or reviewing termination letters,” says Tredwell. She books a meeting room or wears headphones to create a distraction-free zone.
  • Avoid multi-tasking if you are tired or stressed – these states take cognitive resources away from the tasks you’re performing.

Neuroscientist reported that the brains of young people accustomed to frequent media multi-tasking have less grey matter in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression.