The larger issue behind multi-tasking is one of time and the perception each of us have when pressed to complete a task. When we have many tasks to complete at once the urgency increases resulting in stress.
One of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, coined the phrase "time is money" in an effort to inspire hard work and efficient business in colonial France as well as institute daylight savings time. Stefan Klein writes in the NY Times about the perceived loss of money that occurs when we are unable to complete a task. This perception is uniquely American and while responsible for the inherent drive in the hard-working, one-week of vacation a year laborer is also responsible for a lot of the stress that goes along with getting ahead or being successful.
Believing time is money to lose, we perceive our shortage of time as stressful. Thus, our fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and the regions of the brain we use to calmly and sensibly plan our time get switched off. We become fidgety, erratic and rash.
Tasks take longer. We make mistakes — which take still more time to iron out. Who among us has not been locked out of an apartment or lost a wallet when in a great hurry? The perceived lack of time becomes real: We are not stressed because we have no time, but rather, we have no time because we are stressed.
Studies have shown the alarming extent of the problem: office workers are no longer able to stay focused on one specific task for more than about three minutes, which means a great loss of productivity. The misguided notion that time is money actually costs us money.
Not only do we spend more time switching between tasks we believe are more important but we absorb the stress this multi-tasking creates.
Is our perception of time the key to handling stress and our to-do lists? Stressful moments have been compared to adrenaline rushes in the chemicalization they cause in our physiology. Dr.Eagleman has been studying the effects of time perception in adrenaline situations for years and recently filmed a study. The results are interesting.
Stress is ultimately a trick of the brain. Its a chemical reaction caused by a fear of not completing the task, or getting out of a situation. So we begin to scratch at the walls and desperately look for an exit, what Klein says is our "fight or flight" instinct. In the end, staying focused on one task and following it through to the end is what will most quickly alleviate the stress or pressure. Obviously, this is not always true in all situations as there are times when knowing when to switch to a more urgent task is a ideal and can pay off.
Multi-tasking isn't so much a gut reaction to the adrenaline felt when numerous to-dos are due as it is an opportunity to focus specifically on one task and complete it well.