At Work

Multitasking and Stewardship of the Mind

What If Tackling Multiple Tasks at Once Hinders Our Ability to Be Good Stewards in the Workplace?
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Have you ever been tempted to put “ability to multitask” on your resume?

In a society that places a high value on being able to do lots of tasks at (seemingly) the same time, it’s no wonder multitasking appears to be a skill or talent—moreover, one that is greatly desired (dare we say required?) in many settings.

What if we are wrong? What if tackling multiple tasks at once is actually hindering our ability to be good stewards in the workplace?

The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking has recently been termed a myth, primarily because studies have shown that the multitasking phenomenon is actually merely switching very rapidly back and forth between multiple tasks.

However, as writer Vivian Giang reports in Fast Company, “although jumping from task to task may result in a false sense of accomplishment, human brains weren’t built to multitask.”

Such studies also showed that the attempt to multitask (more accurately termed “switch-tasking” by Dave Crenshaw) produces three immediate, negative effects:

  1. An increase in the time it takes to complete the given tasks
  2. A decrease in productivity
  3. Increased stress levels

Other negative impacts of multitasking include an increased likelihood of making mistakes and negative long-term effects on the brain.

We should recognize these effects as hindrances to faithful stewardship. Performing tasks in a way that takes more time, reduces productivity, increases stress, and increases the likelihood for mistakes is neither beneficial for the individual’s workday nor for the overall good of the company.

Faithful Stewardship of the Mind

Going about our work in a way that is shown to have harmful impacts on the brain is neither faithful stewardship in the workplace nor of the mind itself.

Giang writes:

Research repeatedly tells us that multitasking is detrimental to our brain… A number of research studies have concluded that our brains are actually “dumbed down” while multitasking.

A[nother] study…found that subjects who multitasked experienced drops in their IQ comparable to someone who missed a night of sleep. Even if multitaskers feel like they’re getting more done, they’re working at a much lower cognitive level and costing companies billions of dollars in lost productivity.

In a nutshell, the cognitive detriments associated with switch-tasking keep us from accomplishing all that we are capable of accomplishing. Thus, our minds are not being stewarded well. We are wasting our valuable, God-given cognitive abilities.

In addition to these immediate impacts, Giang gives evidence for negative, long-term effects:

[T]he cognitive costs get worse. If you’re a multitasker, you might have done some serious permanent damage, as a study that ran MRI scans on the brains of multitaskers found they had less brain density in areas that controlled empathy and emotions.

Furthermore, multitaskers become addicted to the instant gratification that comes after completing a small task, like sending an email. This leads to a dangerous feedback loop that leaves you believing you’re producing at an optimal rate, but this is deceptive.

Over the course of our lives, spending enough time “in a state of frenetic shallowness,” we can actually permanently lose the ability to do deep work—a concept that is lauded through lip service, but paradoxically neither oft-practiced nor effectively encouraged, says Georgetown professor Cal Newport.

Crenshaw bemoans, “Multitasking is worse than a lie because it is the cultural norm.” In order to make the most of our cognitive abilities, something’s got to give.

Monotasking in a Multitasking World

Faithful stewardship of the mind will require intentionally adapting work habits. It may not be easy, given your current work atmosphere, but start small and work toward adapting what you can.

Close or minimize your inbox window so it cannot serve as a distraction. Finish one task before starting another. By intentionally funneling your focus away from the periphery and onto one task at a time, you will begin to bear a unique sort of fruit.

Choosing to monotask in a multitasking world will likely cause you to stick out from the crowd. But take heart: we see in Scripture that God’s people have continually been set apart by various practices (e.g., see the Old Testament Law and Levitical code, the church’s practices in Acts, and the many imperatives to various churches in the New Testament epistles).

Although some non-believers may grasp and herald the benefits of monotasking, this practice should be the norm for those who belong to the Father. There are far-reaching, personal benefits of monotasking, but the biblical call to stewardship ought to be the primary motivator for believers.

When we recognize that all the Father has entrusted to us are gifts requiring good, faithful stewardship, it is only right for us to respond as faithful stewards.

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  • Thanks for the great reminder, deep work is really where it’s at. I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport and his studies and books.

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