The Multitasking Myth

The Multitasking Myth

The Multitasking Myth: How multitasking ruins your productivityLady with hands on head and elbows on a desk is looking stressed and overwhelmed as 4 arms try to get her to multitask. The Multitasking Myth.

Do you think you can multitask or is the multitasking myth actually true? Most of us think we can of course. In fact some of the comments and questions I get on this subject in my personal productivity training are very telling:

  • I just have to multitask at work right?
  • I get more done when I multitask.
  • Women can multitask better than men right?

Whilst we all think we can multitask quite successfully, the reality is surprisingly quite different. And there are plenty of scientific studies confirming this; it seems the brain just doesn’t multitask very well. The Multitasking Myth is true it seems.

And this goes for women as well as men it seems. In multitasking experiments, gender made little to no difference.

And if you reflect on this for a moment, you will probably realise this to be true. For instance:

  • Think a recent time when you know you were multitasking; did you make a few uncharacteristic mistakes?
  • Or at the end of a busy day, when you go to close down your emails and you realise you had started writing an email and completely forgot to actually press “send”.
  • Or how many of us turn down the radio or ask people in the car to stop talking whilst we try and navigate or negotiate some demanding traffic conditions?
  • Or we all know the dangers of talking on our phone whilst driving. Apparently even talking hands-free leads to reduced concentration on our driving. (Scary….)

Why is this?

So apparently our brains can really only focus on one task at a time. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is what is used when we focus or pay attention to a particular task. This area of the brain is efficient when it is focused on one task however it wont really allow us to multitask. Rather than multitask, it actually switches off from one task to focus on the next task we demand of it. It basically switches back and forth between the various tasks to focus and then to refocus and so on… and so on….a sort of stop/start process is going on if you like. We could call this Task Switching as opposed to Multitasking.

This constant task switching is actually not very productive or healthy for us it turns out.

Multitasking Increases Stress

So firstly it is quite unhealthy to be multitasking (Task Switching) over long periods of time. It actually drains you of more energy! You get tired quicker and are subject to higher levels of stress. People may then resort to eating to try and stay more alert and focused when in actual fact, they probably just need a bit of a break. Multitasking actually increases stress. Focusing on one task at a time is clearly less stressful.

Multitasking leads to tasks taking longer to complete

This is the most surprising result in may ways. It turns out that tasks actually take a lot longer when you try and multitask or task switch. (than they would have if you just single task.)

How much longer? Studies show between 40% – 50 % longer! That’s right, studies show that it actually takes considerably longer to do a task when you try and multitask than it would have if you devoted all your energy to focusing on one task and finishing it off…. This clearly results in poorer productivity.

Put differently, you will get more done in a day if you just focus on one thing at a time!

Multitasking leads to more mistakes

Not only do tasks take longer, but you will invariably make more mistakes as well! Study upon study have proven this to be the case. Interestingly, I tried this myself and then again with a group I was working with recently and the above results were confirmed emphatically.

So it really does seem that dividing your time = dividing your attention.

What can you do?

Since the multitasking myth seems true enough, clearly we need to stop kidding ourselves that we can in fact multitask. That would be a start at least. Then we need to see what we can do to avoid multitasking as much as possible. I know we cannot avoid it all the time and for some people, your job means you are getting constantly interrupted so this becomes an incredibly difficult challenge. If it cannot be avoided, at least recognise the limitations of multitasking and try to work around it as best you can.

Five strategies you can implement to minimise multitasking:

1 – Turn off your Email Alerts

This is one interruption you can largely manage and it has to be one of the most regular interrupters for many of us…Either set specific times to deal with your email, or only check emails when you finish a particular task. Reduce the temptation to be constantly directed to your Inbox as a result of receiving an email alert.

Emails can be a great servant… but an incredibly poor master. Another way to think about this is that by keeping your email alerts on, you are effectively allowing someone else to manage and control your time.

Don’t keep emails open on another screen

Similarly, don’t use your second screen for displaying your Inbox whilst you work on another screen. You are setting yourself up to multitask the moment an email arrives. I love 2 screens from a productivity perspective, but using it like this will just result in everything taking longer as well as the almost inevitable increase in mistakes.

Minimise your Inbox screen in other words. Only have in view the task you are working on. This allows you to remain focused and reduces the temptation to multitask.

Set a Short Term Focus GoalTimer to avoid Multitasking

Set yourself a short term task focus goal. That is, look at the clock, set yourself a time limit to work on a task and try to finish off that task before you start anything else! No doubt this takes discipline which is why a timer or the clock can be useful tools to help keep you focused. Your Task Focus Goal should be no more than an hour really.

Or you can try any number of Apps or techniques that follow the same principal. The Pomodoro Technique for instance.

Manage Drop In Visitors

In today’s “open plan” workplaces, informal chats or drop in visitors have just become a fact of life though for many people and a source of constant frustration. I encourage people to try and formalise some of these informal chats if possible. If you get a “drop in visitor” that you deem can be dealt with later, then try to set up a more convenient time to have a chat. This needs to be done delicately and with respect of course. Make sure you communicate what you are working on and set a mutually convenient time to chat or deal with the issue.

Naturally you cannot do this all the time, but if you can do this some of the time, you may just have avoided a multitasking trap! Plus you may even educate those around you to be a little more mindful of their interruptions.

Don’t interrupt yourself

Finally, as ideas or actions pop into your head whilst you are working on something, resist the urge to drop what you are doing and try to stay focused. Write the idea or the task down on your to do list and keep working to your self-imposed deadline. (Short Term Focus Goal). Once you finish your current task, then you can handle these other issues separately.

So there you go. The Multitasking Myth is indeed true for most of us it seems. Some studies have shown that about 2.5% of people can in fact multitask to a degree. The rest of us mere mortals can’t!

So I’d be really interested to know if you find any of these strategies useful. Make a comment of drop me a message to let me know. Thanks for taking the time read this little article. I do cover this in my personal productivity training at length if this is of interest to you.


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, June 2017

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant

  • Trevor Hale
    Posted at 14:18h, 16 June Reply

    Hi Geoff, I totally agree with your findings in your multitasking article. Even though I have retired, I have to really focus on finishing the task at hand. It is so easy to get distracted from the current task and drift off to another task. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but frequently I find that unless I tell myself to focus and finish the task at hand, I end up with several half finished tasks which frustrates me.

    Keep up the good work.


    • Geoff Prior
      Posted at 08:40h, 25 June Reply

      Thanks for that feedback Trevor. And of course, these days at work, we are virtually encouraged to multitask due to the amount of information that comes at us from different sources…. mobile phone, office phone, email, instant messaging etc…..

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