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Multitasking: Does It Work, and Why Not? (Including Practical Advice)

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Multitasking: Does It Work, and Why Not? (Including Practical Advice)

Does multitasking work?

Multitasking seems like a necessary skill in the modern world—are you even living in the 21st century if you’re not routinely operating four different devices while completing five tasks at the same time? 

Multitasking is also frequently framed as a desirable skill by employers. It makes us feel like we’re taking advantage of the limited time by giving us the illusion that we are getting more done.

Unfortunately, according to researchers, not only does multitasking not work, but it also has negative consequences for us. Research shows that only about 2.5% of people can multitask effectively, while the more we multitask, the more our brain tricks us into believing we are good at it.

Multitasking is a myth

Dr. Robert Desimone, Director at the McGovern Institute at MIT and expert attention researcher, provides a simple exercise that can help you visualize how multitasking works: try typing two words at the same time with one hand. 

Since it’s impossible for your hand to do this, you would have to switch back and forth, alternating one letter at a time for each word. In the end, you will take much more time and have a harder time writing both words than if you had simply written one word at a time.

This is exactly what happens to your brain when you try to multitask. “The normal thing that people do is to switch back and forth. And if they do it quickly, they can sometimes fool themselves into thinking that they’re doing it pretty well,” says Dr. Desimone. 

Neuroscience on why multitasking doesn’t work

Why exactly does this happen? Authors of a 2006 study explain that when we try to do two things at once, there is a task delay on the second task because “a neural network of frontal lobe areas acts as a central bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask.” In everyday English, this means that our brain is not wired to do two things at once. 

Intrigued? We’ll explain how bad the consequences of multitasking can be (spoiler alert: they are much worse than you imagine) and how to effectively avoid multitasking.

Top negative effects of multitasking

Inefficiency

As we saw from Dr. Desimone’s example above, the most immediate effect of multitasking is that you’re forcing your brain to switch from one task to the other, which actually makes you more inefficient. 

Errors

Research has also shown that multitasking makes you more prone to mistakes, so the overall quality of your work suffers significantly.

Long-term cognitive impairment 

The consequences of multitasking go beyond limited productivity and can actually impair our cognitive abilities in the long term. 

A 2009 Stanford study found that people who multitask more frequently scored lower in three important skills: filtering (the ability to ignore irrelevant information), working memory (the ability to file information correctly and access it when needed), and task switching (the ability to change from one task to the other)—all skills that are necessary for the brain to focus on what’s most important.

And this study is not alone in its findings. A 2018 review of the available studies on multitasking concluded the research agrees that heavy media multitasking impaired people’s sustained attention, relational reasoning (the ability to find patterns), and interference management.

Multitasking has also been demonstrated to negatively affect long-term memory in adults and has been linked to lower lower grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to your cognitive and emotional control. 

In short: Multitasking is bad. Really bad.

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How to stop multitasking: a practical guide

1. Identify when it’s OK to multitask

While reading this, you might be wondering why, if multitasking is so bad, we’re able to walk and talk or play music and sing. 

Dr. Desimone explains that the problem is not doing two different tasks at once, but using the same parts of the brain at once. “The more different the types of things you’re trying to do with your brain, the more possible it is to do [them] at the same time,” he claims. 

If you’re listening to music with lyrics while also trying to read a book, you will do neither task well because you’re asking the part of your brain that interprets language to focus on two things at once. Want to watch a show while folding laundry? You’re good to go.

The other instance he calls an exception is when things are coordinated or perceived by the brain to be integrated. This is why singing and playing the same song is ok, but giving a lecture (that’s not sung) while playing an instrument would be extremely difficult. 

However, keep in mind that if your full focus is needed, multitasking isn’t recommended. So talking and driving are still a no-go according to Dr. Desimone, since you are not giving your full attention to driving, which makes you more prone to accidents.

2. Identify when you're multitasking

Once you understand the kind of circumstances in which you can multitask, you can start practicing mindfulness to catch yourself while you’re multitasking in situations where you shouldn’t.

This might seem obvious, but we’re so used to juggling tasks that we often don’t realize we’re multitasking. Many people message coworkers on Slack during work meetings without realizing they are effectively multitasking. 

Tracking your time—for example, with Toggl Track—can be useful for increasing mindfulness. Time tracking lets you know exactly what you’re spending time on and can make it obvious when you’ve lost attention. 

Did you spend 30 minutes answering a single email? Chances are you got pulled into web browsing or texting and ended up taking much longer than necessary.

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3. Identify why you multitask; it's probably one of the reasons below

A. You're trying to be more efficient and multitasking seems like the perfect solution 

If this is you, remember all the negative consequences of multitasking listed above, particularly how it keeps you from effectively using your time. 

Instead, try implementing better time management techniques such as the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps you prioritize tasks.

B. You're easily distracted and interrupted

If you can’t seem to get through a movie without texting or daydream while completing a report, this might actually be a consequence of multitasking itself. As discussed from the studies above, the more you multitask, the harder it is for your brain to focus on anything. This means it’s even more important to cut the problem at the root and stop multitasking as a habit. 

A good technique for this problem is time blocking. The Pomodoro Technique, for example, recommends giving yourself a specific amount of time (Usually 25 minutes) to work on a task without interruptions. After the time is over, you take a break and ignore all work. This motivates you to truly focus on whatever you need to do while you’re in work mode.

C. You're trying to get through a boring or stressful task

Dr. Desimone believes this is the most common reason that people multitask, since tasks that are engaging or pleasant tend to get our attention more easily. (Hence why we can scroll through social media for hours but why we struggle to not check our email during work meetings). 

Sometimes you simply have to do tasks that you wish you could avoid. In this case, monotasking or single-tasking is actually your lifesaver, as it can help you finish the unsavory task more efficiently. 

Timing yourself to see how fast you can complete the task can give you a mental challenge to boost your motivation. It can also help you stay focused, which makes you faster.

D. You can’t avoid it

Sometimes life makes it impossible to not multitask. You’re cooking dinner and you have to watch your kid while calling the doctor because you’ll be in work meetings for the rest of the day. It happens. 

If you see yourself in this situation, it’s helpful to remember Dr. Desimone’s explanation on using different parts of the brain. Though monotasking is better, you can try to plan to multitask tasks that do not use the same parts of the brain or that can be seen as integrated. 

A 2014 study found that in many cases, being forced to multitask is worse for your performance than if you plan to multitask. However, in most cases, monotasking was still better than multitasking, planned or otherwise. 

So if you can, always monotask, but if you find yourself absolutely forced to do multiple things at once, try to be conscious about what kinds of things you can plan on doing at the same time.

E. You're not quite sure why

You sit at your desk to work. An hour passes and you’ve learned about beer brewing techniques used by Medieval monks, texted your best friend, and decided what dog breed you’ll adopt but completed zero work. 

Multitasking has become a habit to many of us and has been normalized, or even glorified, by our culture. 

Remembering that research agrees across the board that multitasking is bad can help you resist this kind of mentality. Recognizing when you multitask and implementing time management and time tracking techniques can help you get more out of your time and avoid getting sucked into the wormhole. 

In the end, multitasking and its supposed benefits are a myth. Being aware of why multitasking is bad and having a strategy set up in place can help boost your productivity, improve the quality of your work, and avoid putting your cognitive abilities at risk.

"We’re so used to juggling tasks that we often don’t realize we’re multitasking."

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