The end of every year often feels like a marathon. This year’s challenges have made it even harder getting to the finish line in one piece. With borders reopening and restrictions easing, the rush to organise a COVID-safe Christmas and holiday, meet work deadlines, wrap up the school year, and attend functions is throwing new challenges.
With so much on the to-do list to get through in a short period of time, it can often leave you feeling muddled, confused and directionless. According to experts, there’s a term for this. It’s known as “milkshake mindset”.
When we’re in a constant state of multitasking, shifting from one thought to another, our minds become clouded, we lose focus and end up feeling stressed and frazzled.
According to organisational psychologist Lianne Sipsma from The Kaya Group, there are some simple things we can do to take control of the mental chaos. It all comes down to focus.
How effective is multitasking?
“It’s a myth that we can multitask,” says Sipsma. “When there are lots of demands, we try to cover off as many things as possible. But unfortunately, it isn't an effective strategy.
“Being fully present - not multitasking - delivers far better results.”
In fact, our brains aren’t wired to multitask, but function far better when focusing on one thing at a time.
“The science is absolutely there. When we talk about “milkshake thinking”, when you've got incomplete tasks and you’re shifting from one task to another, that's just too much for our brain circuitry to handle. It’s not an effective way of completing tasks.”
Why multitasking doesn’t work
If you’ve tried to do several things at once and simply ended up with a string of half-finished tasks, here’s why:
It takes longer
You might feel that doing several things at the same time will get them done faster, but that’s not the case.
Research shows it takes longer to do tasks when we’re multitasking than it does if we focus on one task at a time, Sipsma says.
“Instead of being able to complete those tasks in less time, studies have shown it can increase the amount of time to finish that original task by as much as 25 per cent.
“You've kicked off one thing, and then you'll quickly add something else. And by the end of it, you're actually taking longer to do the original thing you set out to do.”
Even if you’re doing simple tasks like brushing your teeth and putting washing into the clothes dryer, it probably won’t be any quicker than doing them separately.
Quality takes a hit
When we jump between tasks, quality takes a hit.
“If you’re in a video meeting, but you’re also quickly covering off a few emails, the quality of your work is likely to slip,” Sipsma says.
“That’s where neuroscience comes in,” she says, “because we're not wired to be able to switch quickly and effectively between tasks.”
We feel more stressed
When you’re trying to do several things at once, you might notice your stress levels rising.
When we can’t complete the task effectively while multitasking, that creates more anxiety and stress– which is what we were trying to avoid in the first place.
“We multitask to get more done to reduce stress, but it actually has the reverse effect,” she says.
Kids know when we’re not paying attention
Parenting can feel like one big multitasking project every day, Sipsma says. “The challenge for parents is that children know when they don’t have our full attention.
“If you’re cooking dinner while checking emails and also listening to your children talk about their day at school, they’ll know they’re competing for our attention.”
How focusing helps our wellbeing
There are lots of benefits to controlling the urge to multitask and focusing on one thing at a time. Being absorbed by single tasks for longer periods and doing tasks well also gives a great sense of accomplishment.
“That helps to strengthen feelings of self-worth, and that’s gold for overall wellbeing,” Sipsma says.
“When you focus, you’re building skills, because you're staying in the moment to see tasks completed.
“When we practice absorption - allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the task - we experience greater levels of wellbeing.”
When we truly focus and have that feeling of time passing quickly, that’s when we’re most creative, Sipsma says.
In order to ditch the “milkshake mindset”, Sipsma offers the following tips:
Let yourself concentrate
Let yourself be absorbed by one task at a time. It’s likely the results will be better, and you won’t be as stressed, she says.
“Give yourself permission to focus intensely on each individual task. Chances are you’ll produce better quality outcomes in perhaps even faster times.”
Make the time
It can be difficult with the juggle of parenting, work and family to set aside time to focus on single tasks. Simple changes such as turning off notifications, removing technology from the room or shutting the door to your office are easy ways to create the space and time to focus on the task at hand.
If you’re at home and other members of the household need your attention, be clear about how much time you still need and when you’ll be available. You’ll then be able to give them your undivided attention.
Prioritise your upcoming tasks – what’s urgent and important?
“Time is finite, and we can't make more of it. What are the things that are really urgent today? They're the ones that need your immediate attention,” Sipsma says.
Learn to say “no”
Manage demands by exercising the “no” muscle. What are the results you want to achieve?
We can do five things well, or 10 things badly. Challenge that unhelpful thinking which says you need to do “everything”, Sipsma says.
One step at a time
If you’re in the habit of doing everything at once, choosing to focus on one task at a time can feel challenging. But dropping the multitasking habit can help you do more in less time, feel calmer, be more creative and find a rewarding sense of accomplishment.