For decades, people have been aspiring to become effective multitaskers. They look up to those who seemingly are able to handle multiple tasks at once. And who wouldn’t want to perform more than one task at a time? Becoming a proficient multitasker could help you to save quite a lot of time while becoming a lot more effective. Admittedly, the concept of multitasking sounds promising. The prospect of being more effective led many on a quest to master the skill of multitasking. However, many of them failed. Some might still be thinking to this day that their multitasking skills help them to function at a higher level than the vast majority. Truth be told, effective multitasking is not possible. It’s an oxymoron. Study after study has shown that it has a negative impact on the output of your work. Here’s why multitasking could make you less successful. Let me introduce you to the multitasking myth.
There are two types of people when it comes to multitasking. The first group tests the concept of multitasking for a brief period of time, until they give up, thinking that they’re simply not made for it. It simply feels not right for them. Whether they attribute their lack of success at multitasking to bad genes or not enough practice, this group of people comes to the conclusion that multitasking simply isn’t for them. The second group, however, is quite fascinated of multitasking. To them, it seems as if they are getting a lot more done in less time than usual.
They are fascinated by it. Even more so, they become convinced that multitasking actually helps them to be more productive. Here are the scientifically backed reasons why this is not the case. (Plus, we will show you scientifically backed evidence why multitaskers delude themselves about the effectiveness of their work).
The Myth of Multitasking
We are living in unprecedented times. The information age requires from us to respond ever faster to a huge complexity of data. Especially in the working environment, we are confronted with the sudden emergence of many different tasks that it’s tempting not to tackle multiple tasks at once. Switching back and forth from one task to another sounds pretty effective, doesn’t it?
You might even think that approaching two or more tasks at the same time will help you to increase your productivity. Many studies, however, have shown that this is not the case. Even more so, many researchers have indicated that multitasking can in fact have a negative impact on your effectiveness. Multitasking might not only slow you down significantly, but it could also drastically increase the amount of mistakes you make.
Incapable of concentrating on two things simultaneously
The reason for this is simple. We are capable of doing multiple things simultaneously. We can easily watch television while talking to a friend on the phone. The problem, however, is that we’re not able to concentrate on multiple tasks at the same time. It simply isn’t possible.
“You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.”
Welcome to the multitasking myth.
The best example for this is the attempt to write a message while driving in your car. It simply isn’t possible to focus your attention on both things. And in many cases your attention will rest upon your phone, not on driving. That’s why it’s so dangerous.
Technically, there is no such thing as multitasking. All the brain does is to switch its focus from one task to the other. If you’re pursuing two tasks simultaneously, your brain is simply switching back and forth very quickly.
“When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing – quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.”
This constant switching is a big problem for the human brain. Imagine you’d like to read an interesting book. But you are only allowed to read one page at a time. After you have completed one page, you have to watch TV for five minutes. The constant interruption of the reading process will not allow you to ever achieve the flow state when reading. But this is exactly where the joy of reading resides.
Switching attention from one task to another comes at a high price. The human brain is not capable of transitioning seamlessly from one task to another. Instead, it will have to interrupt one task to initiate the cognitively demanding process of refocusing on the other task.
The price you pay for tackling two tasks simultaneously comes as a decrease in performance. It’s the time that you waste while trying to resume the task you previously worked on.
Let’s have a look at the reasons why multitasking might not be a productivity boost as many think.
The Science of Multitasking
Tackling two or more tasks at the same time has quite an impact on your brain. Astonishingly, multitasking has been shown to temporarily change the way your brain operates.
The two hemispheres of the brain start working independently
Whenever you start concentrating on a given task, the prefrontal cortex of the brain coordinates the actions necessary to carry out the task. This area of the brain can be divided into two sides, the left one and the right one.
When you focus on a single task, both sides of the prefrontal cortex work together to carry out the task. The first difficulties start to arise when you try to tackle two tasks at once. In this situation, scientists found that the two sides of the prefrontal cortex work independently from each other. While one side of the brain is listening to something, the other side could be focused on writing. This task separation is possible because we have two frontal lobes. It’s possible, but that doesn’t mean that it improves the output of our work.
Significantly increased error rate
Interestingly enough, the same study found that participants regularly forgot to perform one task when trying to manage three tasks at once. The scientists concluded from these findings that the frontal cortex neglects one task when confronted with three jobs at once. Even more importantly, the researchers also found that the participants made three times as many errors when tasked with three things at once. This means that their error rate was three times lower when they had only two tasks to accomplish.
“A person who is interrupted while performing a task takes 50% more time to complete it and make 50% more errors.”
The more complex, the more difficult
Multitasking can be quite easy when you’re confronted with little demanding activities. No one is confronted with problems when trying to eat and read the newspaper simultaneously. For this reason, natural activities such as walking are not cognitively demanding. Hence, they place less demand on the prefrontal cortex and can be easily combined with similarly simple activities.
However, when confronted with more demanding activities, the cognitive pressure on the prefrontal cortex increases. Therefore, the difficulty of pursuing demanding tasks simultaneously increases. It might be certainly relatively easy to talk on the phone while taking a walk, but it surely becomes more difficult to speak while driving in a crowded city.
This leads us to an important observation: multitasking can be easily done when you are confronted with relatively simple tasks. But as soon as you have to perform complex tasks, the concept of multitasking is not effective.
Multitasking overwhelms the brain
The above has shown us that multitasking can lead to an increased error rate. But what has all of this to do with one’s individual success? Let’s dive a little deeper into the concept of multitasking.
Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh compared the brain activity of participants who first performed one complex job and then two tasks simultaneously. The research indicated that the brain has only a finite amount of resources for the accomplishment of tasks. This means that brain activity does not automatically increase only because a person is confronted with two demanding tasks. As a result of this, the scientists found that the brain actually devotes fewer resources to each task. Consequently, the scientists highlighted that people who are confronted with multiple tasks perform each task with less efficiency. On the other hand, if the participants approached each task separately, they became more efficient.
Not only does multitasking overwhelm the brain, but it also impacts the quality of your work negatively.
The danger of multitasking
Clifford Nass, psychology professor at Stanford University, has done extensive research on the negative impact of multitasking. For his research he investigated the media consumption behavior of Stanford students. The results of his experiments are just another indicator of the great dangers of multitasking.
The experiments compared information processing styles of chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. With the help of a multitasking index two groups were formed. The results of the experiment highlight that heavy media multitaskers are easier distracted by environmental stimuli. This is most likely a direct result of the formation of irrelevant representations in their memory. Surprisingly, the study also found that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on activities that tested their task-switching abilities.
“When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. [But] they actually think they’re more productive. […] They think they can shut it off, and that’s been the most striking aspect of this research. […] And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. […] These people are absolutely, positively addicted.”
Clifford Nass, The Myth of Multitasking on Science Friday
Ness’s research also suggests that chronic multitaskers have greater difficulties when switching between tasks than others. Normally, one would think that their constant practice would help them to excel at switching tasks, but this is not the case. Even worse, chronic multitaskers weaken their capabilities of mental organization.
Lost ability to focus on one thing
Clifford Ness’s research has shown that multitaskers are less able to filter out irrelevant information. Consequently, they are more easily distracted. They are not able to withstand distractions, which decreases their ability of focusing on one thing.
And once you lose the ability to focus on only one thing, it’s incredibly difficult to reroute the brain back to its normal state. As Clifford Nass says, “[our]brains are remarkably plastic.” For this very reason, our brains can be retrained by the constant use of multitasking. It’s an entirely new way of thinking for the brain, but reverting back to the original state is incredibly difficult. “Our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”
Multitasking leads to higher stress levels
Multitasking in the workplace is associated with higher stress levels, according to research conducted in 2008. The study found that employees who multitask compensate for workflow interruptions by trying to work faster. As a result of this, they are experiencing higher frustration, time pressure and more stress.
The multitasking myth – obstacle to success
Doing more does not automatically lead to better results. Similarly, doing several things simultaneously will not help you to get things done faster. Even more so, just by doing more things at a time you’ll most likely be not able to increase your efficiency. The research results listed in the above have clearly shown this. The more you do simultaneously and the more often your workflow is interrupted, the more time you waste and the less effective you become. That’s the reason why it’s called the multitasking myth.
Better results and higher efficiency can only be accomplished when you optimize the output of your work. To be more specific, by doing things better (and not necessarily faster) the results of your efforts can be improved.
To put it bluntly, if you do one thing at a time as best as you can, you’ll be able to positively influence the outcome of your work. The less distracted you are, the better your workflow.
Focusing on one priority
Do not fall prey to the multitasking myth. Being busy all the time and working long hours does not necessarily have to increase your efficiency. Instead of trying to handle various tasks in a given time span, try to choose one priority to focus on. Work on the accomplishment of this priority and do not allow distractions to interrupt your workflow.
In some situations, especially in the working environment, interruptions cannot be avoided. But try as best as you can to pick up your previous priority and pursue it until it’s completed.
By choosing a priority for the upcoming workday, or the entire week, you have already made the decision about the importance and urgency of your tasks at hand. This way you’ll be less distracted by tasks that suddenly come up.
Large parts of society have fallen prey to the multitasking myth. We automatically assume that handling several tasks and that switching back and forth from one task to the other will increase one’s productivity and efficiency. We mistakenly believe that being busy all the time leads to a better outcome of our work. But sometimes, one can be “busy” four hours without accomplishing anything. It’s not always important how much we to but what we do and how good we do it.
I think it’s time we start thinking about the way we handle things. And about the way we deal with distractions. It’s time to overcome the multitasking myth.
Switching back and forth from one task to another will not make you more productive. But it’s a sure fix way to waste valuable time, energy and resources. Instead of trying to get everything done in a short time span, try to get one thing after another done.
I hope you enjoyed this article about the multitasking myth.