The myth of multitasking
how to get more done by doing less.
Reading time: 5 mins
One of the more contentious debates in households and work places alike is the one that starts with “I can just get more done by multi-tasking” and “I’m just better at multi-taking than you so I’m more productive”. Well the science is in and the results are conclusive. Multitasking doesn’t work.
For nearly all people, in nearly all situations, multi-tasking is impossible. When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once – but instead, individual actions in rapid succession. The neuroscience is clear: We are wired to be mono-taskers. One study found that just 2.5 percent of people are able to multitask effectively. And when the rest of us attempt to do two complex activities simultaneously, it is simply an illusion.
So why do so many of us spend our days trying to multitask? And if it’s so bad for us, how can we break the cycle and protect our attention, focus, and time?
Multitasking impairs your best thinking
Many studies have found that excessive multitasking has severe consequences on our mental and physical well-being. Among other things, multitasking:
Impacts your short-term memory: A 2011 research study from the University of California San Francisco found multitasking negatively impacts your working memory—your brain’s “Scratchpad” used to manage and focus on key information.
Leads to increased anxiety: Neuroscientists say that multitasking literally drains your mind’s energy reserves, causing you to lose focus and become more anxious.
Inhibits creative thinking: Added anxiety and a lack of brain “space” caused by multitasking can also cause you to lose your ability to think outside the box. To be creative, our minds need space to digest or “incubate” new ideas.
Stops you from getting into a state of flow: Flow is the state of mind where we’re so focused on a task that our productivity skyrockets. Flow state is often associated with mindfulness. Those who are mindful are able to do more than just pay attention; they do so on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. However, flow requires sustained effort and focus. Something multitasking gets in the way of.
Causes more mistakes and less productivity: Multiple studies have found that multitasking causes people to take longer to do simple tasks, drop your IQ by an average of 10 points, and can even have the same negative impact as losing a night’s sleep
The other types of multitasking and why it isn’t what you think it is
Thinking of multitasking as simply “doing two difficult things at once” doesn’t paint the full picture though. There are also two other forms of multitasking we need to be aware of, especially in the workplace:
Switching costs (switching back and forth between tasks)
Attention residue (performing a number of tasks in rapid succession)
Each has serious impacts on our ability to do good work. Yet they’re also deeply ingrained in how most of us spend our time at work. Let’s look at a few examples of each.
Switching costs: What happens each time you bounce between tasks
Our brains can’t do two things at once. They’re simply not wired to do so. Instead, what we think of as “multitasking” is really just bouncing back and forth between tasks very quickly.
But all these switches take their toll. We can shift our focus really fast—sometimes it takes just a 10th of a second. However, the time doesn’t matter as much as the bandwidth required to jump from one task to another and back again.
Despite all these negative consequences, attempting to multitask isn’t uncommon. One small study found workers switched tasks every 3 minutes. Rather than list off more research, let’s try a simple exercise that quickly illustrates switching costs.
Take a sheet of paper and draw two lines on it
Now, time yourself while you write “I am a great multitasker” on the first line, and then write the numbers 1–20 sequentially on the second line (most people take about 20 seconds to do this)
Take a new piece of paper and draw two more lines
This time, time yourself switching between the two tasks. Write a letter from the sentence “I am a great multitasker” on line one, then write the number “1” on line two. Then alternate back and forth between writing the next letter in the sentence and the next number in sequence.
Continue until you’ve completed both tasks
You probably won’t have to finish both tasks before realizing that it’s taking you a hell of a lot more time to get through it when you’re switching back and forth. This might not mean much if you’re watching a movie and scrolling through Instagram at the same time. But in the workplace it not only slows you down but adds anxiety and stress to your day.
Attention Residue: How multitasking keeps impacting us, even once we’ve switched to another task
Finally, there’s a type of multitasking that few people really talk about: doing multiple different tasks in quick succession. Doing one thing at a time is infinitely more productive than multitasking. But just because you’re going through your to-do list at lightning speed doesn’t mean you’re free from multitasking.
Each time you switch activities, you’re forcing your brain’s executive functions (that manages how, when, and in what order you do tasks) to go through two energy-intensive stages:
First, there’s goal shifting. This is where you decide to do one thing instead of another.
Next, there’s role activation. This is where you change from the rules or context of the previous task to the new one.
Not only is this mentally taxing but it also isn’t a completely clean process. We wrote earlier on the challenge of maintaining attention and avoiding distraction in modern digital age. It isn’t easy and it is worrying. In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. And that also has its own associated cost.
As the authors write:
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Methods you can use now to reduce the amount of multitasking you do each day
The easiest way to reduce multitasking is to set up your day and your work environment for single-tasking and focus.
1. Create a daily plan with dedicated time for focused work
Your daily plan is your map for the day. It tells you what your intentions are and holds you accountable to them. Start by scheduling non-negotiable time for “focused work” at the start of your day. As we discussed in our article on ‘how to own your morning’ it is vital that you start the day right and find a way to gain early victories.
2. Limit your email time and work in “bursts”
Throughout the day, one of the biggest contributors to multitasking is your email. Communication time eats into everything we do. And because it feels productive, we don’t really think of it as multitasking. But it is.
Start by limiting your time on email. Then, commit to working through your emails and IMs in focussed bursts. In Iraq General David Petraeous was famous for answering his emails at only 3 distinct times of the day – and doing so in extremely focussed bursts of activity.
3. Block distracting websites when you want to focus
External distractions like notifications can cause us to multitask, but just as dangerous is boredom. When we feel bored or anxious, we’re more likely to procrastinate or “just check this one website really quickly.” This is context switching at its worst. To protect yourself, use a website blocker during your focused work sessions or even out your non-essential devices on airplane mode.
4. Alternate between periods of focus and breaks
Avoiding multitasking doesn’t mean avoiding breaks. In fact, to keep your energy levels high and focus on single-tasking, you need to have moments to refuel and refocus. Regular breaks also help clear out the attention residue left over from your previous task.
5. Optimize your work environment for focus
Distractions aren’t the only thing that causes us to multitask. Your work environment can pull at your attention just as much as a notification. Designing a work environment for focus can be as simple as clearing out the clutter (both physical and digital) and making distractions harder to use (like putting your phone in another room).
Following these steps won’t guarantee you don’t multitask. But they will help you focus and give you the best chance of staying committed to seeing a task through to the finish line. Start small and gradually build your focused sessions adding more time for heads down work or hard blocking distractions as you go