Why Multitasking Hurts More Than It Helps

April 16, 2020

December 23, 2020

Multitasking is the new status quo. When we’re walking, we’re texting. When we’re on a call, we’re checking email. When we’re making dinner, we’re listening to a podcast.

While elements of this are amazing — like being able to stream any audiobook in the world while you wash dishes — there is a cost.

You’ve probably felt it when a friend pulled out their phone during dinner to text someone else (I’m guilty of it). Or when you meant to finish an important proposal, but got sidetracked doing some online shopping.

I felt it while writing this article, and getting distracted by email. Whoops.

One cost is our time: little bits of it lost while our attention jumps back and forth from one interruption to the next. Another cost is our happiness: missing important moments with those we care about due to distraction.

Ultimately, multitasking robs us of precious time and can leave us feeling distracted, busy, and unfulfilled. By understanding the stakes, and learning more about our mind, we can wrestle back control of our time and attention.

Switch-Tasking

When we think we’re “multitasking” what we’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks, or “switch-tasking.

Switch-tasking (or ‘task switching’) is a term used in scientific research to describe the act of switching between two cognitive tasks. Neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin has this to say abut switch-tasking:

“What it turns out is that we think we’re multitasking, but we’re not. The brain is sequential tasking: we flit from one thought to the next very, very rapidly, giving us the illusion that what we’re doing is doing all these things at once.”

Essentially, even those amongst us who claim to be good at multitasking are really just getting very efficient at switch-tasking.

Think about it: if you’re reading this article and your phone buzzes, then you check it, you’re not able to simultaneously read a text and an email. You are switching attention back and forth.

Science Says

Now, decades of research around this topic shows us that as humans, we’re just not that good at doing more than one thing at a time.

It is true that humans can multitask. However, we are really only able to combine physical tasks with mental tasks. This has actually been shown to benefit our performance in some cases (listening to music while running), but is obviously harmful in others (texting while driving).

But we’re not good at juggling two mental tasks at the same time, and that is where the the real problem with multitasking exists.

We incur a cost each time we are interrupted. There is a small delay in getting back on track, and these delays can add up, and sometimes even result in a drop in performance.

Here are a few interesting findings that stuck out to me:

  • We can lose up to 40% of our productive time when task switching (American Psychological Association)
  • On average, it takes us around 23 minutes to resume focus after an interruption (Gallup)
  • Constant interruption leads to feelings of higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, and more time pressure (UC Irvine)

Put simply, multitasking hurts more than it helps. We are all prone to do it more often than we realise. Luckily, with a little practice, we can all learn single-tasking and enjoy the benefits of doing just one thing at a time.

Single-Tasking

Single-tasking is exactly what it sounds like: doing just one thing at a time. While it is no revolutionary concept, it can transform the way you work.

Focusing deeply on one activity brings us closer to a flow state.

Being in flow is what many of us call being “in the zone,” and it’s characterised by feelings of effortless, enjoyment, and focus. Have you ever been so focused on something that time just flew by? You were in flow.

As Wharton professor Adam Grant says,

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

Even if you don’t experience a magical flow state flow every time you sit down to work, by practicing single-tasking, I’ve found work becomes more calm, enjoyable, and satisfactory.

Simply put, not only will single-tasking make you more effective, you’ll also enjoy whatever it is you’re doing more.

Put It Into Practice

Even if we know that multitasking isn’t serving us, it can still be a tough habit to break. Don’t worry about perfection. Trust me, it’s overrated (and impossible).

If you just remember this advice, you’ll benefit massively: when you’re doing something that requires thinking, don’t do anything else.

Here are a few tips to help you gradually start to practice single-tasking in your daily life:

Make Time for It. Create space in your schedule to practice single-tasking. It’s hard to commit to avoiding multitasking for the entire day, so start by blocking off time on your calendar to put this practice to work.

Start Small. Our default mode is hard to change, so rather than trying to go cold turkey on multitasking, just set a realistic and achievable goal that makes sense in your life. Remember that our energy and focus peaks after 90 minutes, so use that as an upper bound.

20 Minutes of Magic. Again we turn to our trusty friend: the timer. Setting a visual goal on the timer for your focused work periods — even if it’s just 20 minutes, or 10! — can motivate you to stay honed in on the task at hand.

Silence is Golden. If you can, silence your phone notifications while you practice single-tasking. If you find yourself distracted by certain websites, block those too. It might sound extreme, but I’ve found it’s the only way I can reliably achieve uninterrupted focus.

Clean the Clutter. If you have tons of tabs open in your browser, you’re more likely to mindlessly click on one when you feel distracted. Try working in a single tab, or limiting yourself to a small number, like three.