Bouncing Around

Did you know that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent? As surprising as this number is, what is more surprising is that those who multitask believe that they are being more productive than if they focus on one task at a time. Let’s have a closer look at multitasking.

The first thing to consider is that no one can truly multitask. What they are doing is “task switching.” According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries: “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”

If one is task switching, then the way to save time is to batch your tasks. For instance, if you need to attend meetings, then schedule your meetings all in one day or half-day. This way, you get into the necessary mindset required for meetings and you get meetings done all at once (or in chunks of time). This is much better than having one meeting every day.

Switching frequently between tasks can also introduce errors into your work. This is especially true if your work involves a lot of critical thinking. A 2010 French study concluded that while the human brain can handle two complicated tasks without too much trouble, introducing a third task can overwhelm the frontal cortex and increase the number of mistakes.

Another reason not to multitask is that it increases stress. A University of California found that employees who received a steady stream of email stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant access multitasked less and were also less stressed.

Multitasking also increases “inattentional blindness.” One study found that 75% of college students who walked across a street while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. While the brain did not register seeing the clown, there is real danger in inattentional blindness. What if a speeding car was heading toward you while you were engaged on your cell phone?

Multitasking makes it harder to switch between tasks. This is especially true as our brains age. A 2011 study from the University of California in San Francisco concluded that it becomes harder to get back on track after interruptions. This is because sudden interruptions forcing us to focus on another task disrupts short term memory.

All of this begs the question, “Do those who say they can multitask actually multitask and do they do it well?” According to a 2013 University of Utah study, if you engage in multitasking frequently, you are much worse at it than those who only engage occasionally.

The next time you feel the need to bounce around between tasks, STOP. Instead, prioritize and schedule your work to focus on one task at a time. To become more productive, do not divide your attention between tasks. And remember that overall, frequent multitasking or task switching leads to more harm than good.

The Facts on Multitasking

The term “multitasking” is derived from “computer multitasking,” first coined in the 1960s by I.B.M.  A computer’s ability to multitask is due to its many core microprocessors; each microprocessor capable of performing one task. With microprocessors running simultaneously, there is a perception that computers are multitasking where, in fact, the multiple microprocessors are performing separate tasks simultaneously.

Edward Hallowell, noted psychiatrist and author, describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” As any efficiency expert can tell you, Hallowell is correct – people cannot perform two or more tasks simultaneously as efficiently as one. Several research studies have been conducted to support this finding.

So why do people multitask? The answers to this question are as varied as the individuals who multitask. Perhaps it’s to meet a deadline or the adrenaline rush of working on many tasks at once – whatever the reason, the act of multitasking never produces the same results as when one works on one task at a time. When your attention is divided, none of the tasks are completed as accurately or efficiently as if you focused and worked on only one task at a time.

For instance, think about driving and talking on a cell phone. One study found that having an accident is four times more likely when using a cell phone while driving. Another study compared reaction times for experienced drivers during a number of tasks, and found that the subjects reacted more slowly to brake lights and stop signs during phone conversations than during other simultaneous tasks.

If you’re on the phone while driving, you can only be doing one task effectively. You are either responding/listening to the telephone conversation or you are driving. Your brain cannot focus on both sources of input at once.

An interesting test currently being conducted by researchers at is looking at multitasking. Take the test to see how your skills stack up.

In addition to multitasking reducing our efficiency and productivity, it has been stated that multitasking can have a negative effect on our happiness. This is especially true where we are exposed to too many choices. However, studies by Mark Carrier, Nancy Cheever, and others, demonstrate that younger generations such as Gen Y and Gen Z are better able to navigate the barrage of information and choose what information deserves their attention.

Regardless of how one justifies multitasking to improve their efficiency, there is no scientific evidence that anyone is able to perform equally effectively on tasks when they are done one at a time or when they are approached all at once. Our brains do not come with multiple core processors and until they do, multitasking will continue to usurp efficiency whenever it is attempted.