“Juggling is an illusion. … In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. … It is actually task switching.” (Gary Keller)

You probably know the feeling: you’re swamped with work, your email inbox is overflowing, and then you get that call – the one from someone whom you feel guilty about ignoring, so you take the call with your handset wedged in between your ear and your shoulder. The problem is, the person doesn’t really get your full attention, because you are trying desperately to write that important email at the same time.

But because you are also trying to pay attention to the person, you send the email without the attachment. Partway through the conversation, you realise the error and send another email, this time with an apology and the attachment. But it is the wrong attachment, so – hugely embarrassed – you go searching through your files for the correct attachment, when you are interrupted by the person on the phone, who reminds you that you haven’t responded to their question: are you still there, they ask?

Actually, they could have asked whether you were ever there. The idea of multitasking is seductive: the thought that we can accomplish several things at once. The uncontroversial word from time management experts is, however, that unless we are pairing a cognitive (that is: mind-requiring) task with a strictly manual (no-brain-needed) task, we cannot. Our brains do not actually multitask; rather, they rapidly switch between tasks, with disastrous results for the management of our time, our lives, and our relationships. In this article, we look at some of the problems turning up for so-called “multi-taskers”.

Your brain sustains damage when you multitask

Ouch! A study at the University of Sussex (2014) has confirmed it. Our brains are neither designed to nor capable of focusing on more than one thing at once, so they jump back and forth between tasks, focusing briefly on one at a time. The problem with this is at least twofold. First, it damages your brain to do all the switching. The Sussex study found that people who regularly multitask have lower brain density in the region of their brain which allows empathy, cognitive control, and emotional control. In other words, you are reducing the very qualities that make you human when you attempt the super-human feat of doing several things at once. There was good news on the study, though. It was also discovered that the damage can be reversed when people revert to doing one thing at a time and try to focus, especially in a place where they can concentrate.

You become less productive when you multitask

There is research on this one, too. Writer/artist/blogger Julie Neidlinger (2014) cites Susan Weinschenk’s research showing that with the task-switching that we call multitasking, it takes more time to finish then if a person simply sticks with a single task until it is completed. This research shows that multitasking reduces our productivity by 40 percent.

With multitasking you become dumb

Back to our brains again! A University of London study (Bradberry, 2014) found that attempting to multitask on cognitive tasks lowered IQ scores as much as if participants had stayed up all night or smoked marijuana. Because intelligence, as in the capacity to discern, is what’s being lost, people trying to multitask become blind to how poorly they are performing on the multiple things attempted at once; they literally lose the ability to see what’s good and what isn’t.

You tend toward becoming a sloppy cheat with multitasking

Wow! This is a harsh accusation, made by Neidlinger (2014). It is based on her experience of writers attempting to blog while doing other things. Her point is that, when we become pressed for time, we make both unintentional errors and errors of judgment. The sloppiness is the unintentional part, but the “cheating” comes about when we may tend to cut corners because we feel so swamped by work and other duties. For writers and students writing assignments, for example, this could mean not attributing sources clearly (or at all), or taking too large a chunk of material from a source.

Multitasking means that you work much more slowly, remember less, and make fewer connections

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that when subjects attempted to do more than one thing at once worker performance reduced and projects lasted longer. Backlogs got created with the subjects’ daily lists (Coviello, Ichino, & Persico, 2010). Subjects demonstrated the difficulty in remembering content, and in the ability to connect different content sources to one another, leading to decreased capacity to learn new things (Neidlinger, 2014).

Multitasking: the bottom line

If you have concluded that you are better off not to multitask at all, you can’t go wrong with that decision. If you do choose to do it, make sure that at least one of the tasks is a very simple physical one, such as taking a walk or washing dishes while doing the cognitive activity (say, thinking about the next project). If the above points have convinced you that it needs to stop altogether, there are several things you can do to help wean yourself off the multitasking habit. For start, recall our advice with prioritising above: “no” is a very useful word to learn; it helps you avoid taking on too much.

When you are doing a task which requires focus and attention, turn things off (phone, television, email notifications, etc.). Become skilled at handling interruptions. You might have to eventually do a task someone is interrupting you to request, but you should be allowed to do it at a time and in a way which does not compromise your productivity, which means – like successful people – doing only that task when you are working on it (Neidlinger, 2014; Zeigler, 2005).

Author: Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

References:

  • Bradberry, T. (2014). Multitasking damages your brain and career, new studies suggest. Forbes/Leadership. Retrieved on 12 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Coviello, D., Ichino, A., & Persico, N. (2010). Don’t spread yourself too thin: The impact of task juggling on workers’ speed of job completion. The National Bureau of Economics Research. Retrieved on 12 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Neidlinger, J. (2014). The horrifying truth about multitasking and productivity. CoSchedule Blog. Retrieved on 12 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • University of Sussex. (2014). Brain scans reveal ‘gray matter’ differences in media multitaskers. EurekAlert. Retrieved on 12 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Zeigler, K. (2005). Getting organized at work: 24 lessons to set goals, establish priorities, and manage your time. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-145779-8