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Multitasking is Terrible – So Why Do We Do It?

Does Multitasking Improve Productivity

Anthony Mersino

May 31, 2022

6:22 PM

Multitasking or doing multiple tasks at the same time is a terrible practice that lowers quality, extends schedules and it harms people. So why do we do it?

Let’s take a closer look starting with why Multitasking is Terrible.

Why is Multitasking Terrible?

People Don’t Really Multitask

The first thing we need to do is agree on language. Humans don’t actually multitask. Instead, we quickly switch between two different actions per the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Cynthia Kubu:

We’re really wired to be monotaskers, meaning that our brains can only focus on one task at a time, says neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, PhD. “When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching,” she says.

— Cynthia Kubu and the Cleveland Clinic, Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

Multitasking Means Constant Distractions

One of the things that our smartphones provide is is the ability to distract ourselves. For some of us, that means interruptions during work, play, watching TV and even when having dinner with others. The chime of a new text or email will often cause us to immediately stop what we are doing (sometimes midsentence) and devote our attention to this new interruption. We are constantly being distracted.

Not only does that hinder our ability to actually do deep creative work, it hurts our relationships. We are not present with others when we are staring at our smartphones. In fact, we aren’t even present with ourselves. We are not self-aware.

Multitasking is Stressful

Multitasking can often mean jumping around from activity to activity like caffeinated squirrels. We are constantly reacting and shifting gears. We respond to inquiries from others as if we are playing Whack a Mole. This is stressful and while some people may like the adrenaline high, overall the effects of this are negative.

Attempting to multitask is Slower and Results in More Errors

Would you be surprised to learn that multitasking is slower and more likely to result in errors? We have a classroom exercise that we do that demonstrates it nicely. That said, some of our students still push back on the idea that it is slower or that it lowers quality. But the evidence is clear:

Studies show that when our brain is constantly switching gears to bounce back and forth between tasks – especially when those tasks are complex and require our active attention – we become less efficient and more likely to make a mistake.

— Cleveland Clinic, Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

Multitasking Lowers Your IQ

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ.

A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.

— Forbes, Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career

Multitasking is bad for your Brain in Other Ways

Researchers at Stanford University tested heavy multitaskers to see if they were better or worse than light multitaskers on a variety of tasks. They found that those heavy multitaskers cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those that focus on one thing at a time.

After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance. “The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”

— Adam Gorlick, Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price

Organizations that encourage Multitasking are actually decreasing people’s productivity.

Oddly, being a good multitasker is someting that organizations seek out. Why? Why would they want to inflict someone who likes to multitask on their organization?

I guess we can chalk that up to wishful thinking. Or a mistaken belief that somehow the people playing whack-a-mole with all the things coming their way enjoy it and are good at it. As it turns out, they aren’t.

Stop looking for multitaskers. Instead, set priorities, focus and deliver.

Multitasking is offensive to Others

Let me state this in a positive way. People want to be seen and heard. In conversations, the speaker deserves that the listener give their full attention. If you are looking away to check your phone for texts or emails, then you are sending the message that what they have to say is not important.

Multitasking Makes Meetings Drag On

Have you ever been in a meeting and heard someone request that you repeat the question? “Sorry I was on mute, can you repeat the question?” Actually what they are saying is “I chose to focus my attention on a different task while the rest of you talked. Can we stop the forward progress of this meeting, back up, and repeat the previous discussion points?”

As you can imagine, the more people that do this in meetings, the slower and less efficient meetings become. That creates a negative feedback loop and more people begin paying partial attention because of the inefficiency. Yikes!

If Multitasking is so Terrible, Why do People Do It?

I believe there are a few different reasons why people multitask.

1. Most organizations, in an attempt to maximize productivity, do two things which lead to multitasking. They encourage everyone to specialize in one thing, and they overallocate people to teams and projects. The specialization means the individual is sure to get all of a certain type of work, regardless of their capacity to complete it. And the overallocation, while intended to “get 100% out of everyone” is misguided in that it actually reduces productivity.

2. For some people, multitasking is an avoidance technique. It is an extension of our constant desire to distract us from real life. We are going to head over to Facebook or Twitter and get some quick hits.

3. Starting multiple things and juggling a lot of tasks keeps us busy, and distracted. We can seek out a quick hit of good feeling to counter negative hits. We may feel like we are getting a lot done.

4. Individuals continue to take on too much and work on multiple things because they are being asked to and somehow they feel it is more effective. It isn’t. Or they do it out of scarcity, with the mistaken belief that if they aren’t doing two things at once they will be rated a low performer. They won’t, for the reasons mentioned above.

What to do Instead of Multitasking

If you are a frequent multitasker, here are some tips that might help you do fewer things at once and thereby increase your productivity.

1. Practice Focusing for longer and longer periods of time. If you have trouble just focusing on one thing at a time, then use a timer to practice. Start with 5 minutes of uninterrupted time and work your way up to 20 or 30. I use a pomodore timer set for 15 minutes for my personal work and then take a break or switch tasks after 15 minutes.

2. Create a Kanban Board and use that to organize your work. For personal tasks, I use a flip chart and sticky notes to organize all the work that I have to do, sort it by priority and then start one or two of those things at once. By moving things into the piles of “to do”, “in progress” and “done” I give my brain permission to only worry about the items in progress. It also helps if you break your work down into small activities that can be accomplished in 1-2 hours.

3. Set times for Focus and time for distraction. If you know when you are most productive or able to focus, set aside that time. If you don’t know, check out Dan Pink’s book, WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing? Then set aside corresponding time to do less productive work – check text and emails, respond to social media, etc.

4. Remove distractions and interruptions during your focus time. Many of us are set up to be bombarded with interruptions from all directions. Instead, turn off your phone or silence notifications, close email, instant messaging and Slack and close out social media windows. Let go. Distractions are an easy escape and huge hit to your productivity. If you have trouble doing this, start with just 30 minutes.

5. Be willing to be bored. Yes that is correct, be bored. With entertainment and distraction available to us 24X7, we are rarely ever bored. Yet giving your brain the time to be bored will allow you to also be creative and to think deeply.

6. Meditate every day. Meditation has been shown to help our brains reset and refresh. A daily meditation break of 10-20 minutes is all that it takes to help our brains recover. Try it – it is lovely!

7. Encourage and Challenge Prioritization at all levels. A key to effectively focus on one thing at a time is to know that it is the most important or valuable thing to do. This should be done at all levels. Individuals should prioritize their work. And certainly organizations should set priorities appropriate to the workforce. If everything is high priority, then nothing is. If you are given multiple conflicting priorities, challenge them.

Multitasking is terrible. Do what you can to avoid or minimize the amount that you have to do.


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