Here’s a hard truth you might find difficult to believe: multitasking is a myth. Our brains are incapable of it.
What you might refer to as multitasking—writing an email, then answering a text message, then chatting to a nearby coworker—is actually called task switching. It’s where you perform one task, then quickly switch to another task.
While many people claim to have mastered multitasking, the downsides vastly outweigh any benefits. Not only does it not work, but it can be detrimental to your well-being.
Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, says that attempting to do more than one task at once results in cognitive overload. As he explains, “When that happens, you’re never paying close attention to anything. You’re never focusing on one thing for an extended period of time.”
Dr. Clifford Nass, who wrote The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, has also sounded the alarm on multitasking. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Nass states, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.”
The evidence shows multitasking is only hurting, not helping people. To remain healthy and properly perform your job duties, learn how to stay far away from multitasking and start focusing on one task at a time.
8 Ways Multitasking Hurts You
It’s not just that multitasking is ineffective—it also hurts you in different ways. The following are several of the drawbacks you may encounter if you frequently multitask.
1. Results in Lower Productivity
Multitasking is meant to help you do more in less time, but the opposite often happens. Research over the past few decades has backed this up. Dr. Joshua Rubinstein, Dr. Jeffrey Evans, and Dr. David Meyer conducted a series of experiments on the effectiveness of multitasking and found that individuals who did it were 40 percent less productive. As author James Surowiecki points out, “I do think to some extent multitasking is a way of fooling ourselves that we’re being exceptionally efficient.”
2. Causes Higher Stress
When you have to juggle so many tasks at once, your worries are only bound to increase. A study from researchers at the University of California-Irvine discovered that multitasking often leads to more stress in individuals. They monitored increased heart rates for those who always had access to their emails. This led people to be in what researchers called a “high alert” state since they were always anticipating an important message. Subjects without email access experienced less stress since they didn’t engage in multitasking.
3. Negatively Impacts Memory
Another study at Stanford found that multitasking can make your memory poorer. This study discovered that when people use different media streams simultaneously, their working memory and long-term memory suffered as a result. Researchers concluded that if someone tries to multitask with different media, they will have a “reduced ability to draw on the past” in order to inform what they’re doing now. It’s easy to see how this can lead to worse results in their work.
4. Increases the Chance of Mistakes
On that note, if you choose to multitask, you likely make more mistakes on the work you do. That’s according to Dr. Edward Hallowell, who says that multitasking could lead to people developing Attention Deficit Trait (ADT), which is similar to Attention Deficit Disorder, only not genetic. Dr. Hallowell says that dealing with constant interruptions not only leads to less productivity, but it also introduces more mistakes. Those who want to make sure their work is accurate will avoid multitasking.
5. Makes You Miss Important Details
Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, the writers behind Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, have found that if you multitask, you are more likely to skim over important details. By shifting so often from one task to the next, you may inadvertently miss crucial information, which can impact your work. It may also result in more mistakes, as mentioned above.
6. Lowers Your IQ
If that weren’t enough reason to stop multitasking, more research indicates doing it will probably make you dumber. In a study from the University of London, researchers determined that regularly multitasking drops IQ by ten points. Researchers said that the drop was more pronounced than the effect of smoking cannabis. It should be noted, however, that this impact was only seen in male subjects. Female subjects did not seem to suffer from the same effect.
7. Reduces Your Creativity
Yet another study shows the debilitating effects of multitasking. This study from the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that people who multitask had more difficulty with tasks that required creative problem-solving. People in jobs that need creativity to get things done may be affected the most if they choose to do more than one thing at the same time.
8. Contributes to Weight Gain
Multitasking may even be responsible for weight gain in some people. A report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who attempted to eat their meals while distracted—such as when watching television—ate more than those who only focused on their meals. Researchers attributed this to signals in the brain indicating when a person was full. If that person was distracted, those signals wouldn’t fire. In other words, if you’re occupying your mind with other things while you eat, you’ll end up consuming more food.
Why Do We Multitask?
- It doesn’t seem to negatively affect us: Many people aren’t aware of the drawbacks, but even if they are, they likely don’t think that they will affect them. One study from the University of Utah discovered that 70 percent of subjects believed that they were above average at multitasking compared with others. But researchers behind the study said that multitasking was actually “cognitively and physically taxing” and that “the persons who chronically multi-task are not those who are the most capable of multi-tasking effectively.”
- We try to 10X our lives: Another significant reason we often multitask is the overall desire to do as much as possible. For many, life can feel empty or boring when we aren’t doing more than one thing. Think of all the times you’ve listened to a podcast while doing something else. Are you on your phone when you watch a movie? Do you pay full attention during a Zoom meeting, or do you work on something else while on the call?
- Distractions seem unavoidable: At a time when remote work is so common, we may also get easily distracted. Platforms like Slack and regular email can break our workflow at the mere sound of a notification. In other words, the nature of today’s work makes it easy to attempt multitasking, which is why we should be aware of how bad it is for us.
How to Stop Multitasking: Try These 7 Methods
1. Fully Shift Your Attention to a New Task
Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore suggest that one of the best ways to stop multitasking is by shifting sets. This “set-shifting” involves moving your full attention to a new task whenever you intend to do something else. As Moore writes, “This brain skill […] allows you to leave behind one task and leap to a new one with a fresh and productive focus.”
Multitasking often revolves around constantly moving between different tasks with your divided attention. When you shift sets, you very intentionally switch gears, finishing up your current task and then moving to the next one by no longer thinking about what you just left behind.
A way to demonstrate this outwardly is by giving yourself a bit of time (a minute or two) to refocus and move on.
2. Create a Schedule and Stick to It With Time Blocks
Multitasking can happen due to disorganization. When you create a schedule, you prevent chaos from running your day. But creating a schedule is just the beginning. If you don’t hold to it, the schedule means nothing. Stick to it as much as possible.
Block out time for specific tasks, and only do those tasks in that time. As you maintain your schedule, it will prevent you from moving from one task to another at the drop of a hat.
3. Remove Distractions by Setting Boundaries With Technology
One of the most important steps you can take to avoid multitasking is to eliminate distractions. First and foremost, make sure your phone doesn’t interrupt your work. Turn it to silent so you don’t receive constant messages and notifications. You’ll need to learn how to go without it for a period of time. While you may feel like you need to have it on hand in case an important message from work pops up, communicate with your coworkers when you’ll be “off-grid” to remove any worry.
Do the same with alerts and notifications on your computer. Fortunately, there are many apps available that can help you focus and remove harmful distractions. Try them out to see how well they keep you on task.
4. Schedule Time to Recharge
During the day, you should take some time to unload your mind and recharge your energy. The best time to do this is after you finish one task and before you begin a new one. These don’t have to be long activities. It can be something as simple as going for a brief walk, stretching in your chair, or doing some breathing exercises. Work these activities into your schedule as well.
You may even schedule time to daydream, as it lets your mind wander before it refocuses. As long as you don’t overdo it, you should feel re-energized. You can also schedule taking time off from your work as a great way to regain your strength and enthusiasm.
5. Keep Your Work Space for Working Only
The location where you work should be used solely for work. When you’re in an office, this is relatively easy to do. However, if you work remotely, this issue presents a special challenge. If you can dedicate a room as your office, you should do so. If it’s a corner of the kitchen, then that can work, too.
The important thing is to only use that space for work-related tasks. Avoid using it for watching videos, reading a book, or checking social media on your smartphone. By dedicating a space only for work, you get your mind in the habit of focusing only on work. This helps to limit distractions and put you in the right frame of mind for being productive.
6. Delegate What Others Can Do Effectively
You may feel like you need to multitask because you need to do it all yourself. It’s easy to get into that mindset, but understand that delegation is usually a highly effective option. When you practice delegation, you allow people to do other tasks that they may be better suited to handle. It’s a way to not only give them more autonomy, but it also gives you more time. Through delegation, you can focus more on your immediate tasks and dedicate your efforts in a more deliberate direction.
7. Practice Mindfulness to Connect With Your Thoughts and Feelings
If you’re out of touch with your thoughts and feelings, you may not even know that you do a lot of multitasking. The art of mindfulness embraces moments of peace so you can better connect with what’s going on in your mind. Through mindfulness, you can declutter your thoughts and understand why you feel the way you do.
Take a moment each day to meditate and connect with your inner self. As you do so, your mind will feel freer, and you’ll be able to focus more on the task at hand rather than on the dozen other tasks that still need doing.
It’s Time to Start Monotasking
Multitasking introduces certain harms that you can avoid. As you seek better health and improved productivity, you can start monotasking—doing one thing at a time purposely and with full intent. Fortunately, practicing monotasking involves many of the tips listed above, which will help you stay away from multitasking.
Here’s a quick example of how you can monotask:
- Schedule a block of time where you only work on one task.
- Get rid of distractions within your workspace.
- Before you begin the task, take a moment to clear your mind through meditation and breathing exercises.
- Stick to the one task you set out to do.
- After it is done, take a moment to meditate again, thanking your mind for its hard work.
While you become more proficient at monotasking, you’ll eventually enter into an efficient and productive workflow. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, says, “Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” This flow state can be yours provided you stay far away from multitasking. Try monotasking for a week, and notice all the benefits it provides.
Still don’t believe that multitasking is ineffective? Take the multitasking challenge from Media Literacy School.
For more tips on how to focus and be more productive, check out the following articles: