The Multitasking Myth
Monday, February 20, 2023

The Multitasking Myth

You can do it all..... just not all at once.

Can you multitask? Can you focus on three things at once? Does it make you more productive? If you answered yes to all or any of these questions then, unfortunately, you’re mistaken. The truth is that multitasking doesn’t actually exist. It’s a myth.

Multitasking was a phrase coined by IBM in the 1960s when it was used to describe the capabilities of the company’s computers. People embraced the word and today multitasking is frequently seen on the resumes of people trying to present themselves as being highly competent and skilled.  But, the reality is that it’s a practice that can be extremely detrimental to your productivity, memory, and mental health.

Here we look at why multitasking is a myth, how it affects your productivity, and how you can avoid falling into the trap of task switching.

The Truth About Multitasking

Multitasking is the concept of doing more than one thing at once. We all know we have the ability to walk and talk at the same time or breath whilst reading. But, these are simple tasks that come as second nature to us and require no thought. Multitasking refers to performing simultaneous tasks that both require mental effort, such as writing a report while responding to emails or chatting with a colleague while performing online research.

Unfortunately, only 2.5% of us actually have the ability to multitask and effectively focus on two mentally-taxing things at once. Instead, the rest of us simply switch tasks, constantly flitting from one job to another without really fully focusing on one thing or achieving anything.

The human brain is simply not capable of putting all its effort into two complex things at once. It effectively splits itself in two, with one side working on one task while the other half focuses on another. Throw a third task into the mix and the brain will simply dismiss one of the first two tasks.

Why Is Multitasking Harmful?

Man in office stressed by too many tasks.

So, why do so many of us think we have to multitask? We’re often overwhelmed with too many tasks, and feel like the only way to to tackle them is simultaneously. Or, it’s because it's just expected from us. Colleagues and employees expect to have access to you at all times. The boss and clients expect you to get back to them right away when they message or email. In fact, studies suggest that 84% of workers keep their inbox open in the background throughout the day — just in case.

The more devices, meetings, notifications, and tasks you introduce into your working day, the more likely you are to try and multitask. And, this attempt can have a detrimental effect on your performance and your mental health.

Affects Productivity

Multitasking costs time, making us work slower than when we focus on one task at a time. Switching attention forces your brain to shift its attention onto something else, losing precious seconds in the process. This may not seem like too much time lost but it all adds up throughout the day.

Working slower and less efficiently while multitasking has a huge impact on the amount we can achieve during our workday, impacting productivity by as much as 40%.

Increases Stress and Anxiety

Neuroscientists agree that multitasking is bad for your health. Constantly task switching uses up valuable oxygenated glucose in the brain, literally draining the mind of energy. A lack of oxygenated glucose eventually causes exhaustion, and this mental fatigue can lead to you becoming frustrated which in turn increases stress and anxiety levels.

Impacts Performance

Even small, simple tasks become difficult when we try to do too many at once. And, thinking technology can help with multitasking is a myth all on its own: emails, messages, and phone calls that force us to task switch cause a 10-point fall in IQ levels. This increase in task difficulty and the drop in mental ability can lead to more mistakes being made, impacting performance and the quality of your work.

Memory Problems

Smartphones are clever gadgets. They mean that we have everything at our fingertips whenever we need it. From browsing the web and watching a video clip to monitoring Instagram and checking emails, we’re all constantly connected to and have access to multiple media streams. Unfortunately, this constant streaming of content leads to us media multitasking.

Studies suggest that people who excessively media multitask experience problems with both their working memory (the storing of information while carrying out a task) and long-term memory (the ability to store and recall information over a long period of time).

How to Avoid Multitasking and Become More Productive

Happy woman focused and working at her desktop.

So now that we know how multitasking affects performance and drains the brain, how do you avoid task switching and improve your productivity? It’s not easy, especially with all the distractions in the modern workplace. But there are steps you can take to prevent yourself from falling into the multitasking trap.

Plan Your Day

Effective planning can help eliminate the need or desire to multitask. Create a workday schedule that sets aside chunks of time for different activities.

Are you a morning or evening person? Do you know your chronotype? Identifying your chronotype and working out when you’re at your most productive lets you plan your workday around when you’re most alert – so you use every hour as effectively as possible.

At your most productive times, schedule in deep work sessions when you tackle the most important or most complex item on your to-do list. Set aside time to read and respond to emails, messages, and even to check your social media. Finally, don’t forget to plan for regular breaks throughout the day, giving you plenty of time to recharge and refocus.

Focus On Single-Tasking

Single-tasking, or monotasking, is the complete opposite of multitasking. Instead of trying to do 10 things at once, you dedicate yourself to just one task at a time until you’ve completed it or your deep focus time is over.

By setting up your working environment to eliminate distractions and interruptions, you prevent yourself from shifting attention and focus onto something else, such as quickly responding to an email that’s just dropped into your inbox.

So, instead of cramming too many tasks into a morning or afternoon deep work session, choose the most important or most difficult one and use the session to focus solely on it. Not only will single-tasking help channel all your valuable energy into one task at a time, it should save you time in the long run and help improve your overall performance.

Be sure to set a timer when you single-task.  Why?  A common fear people have about single-tasking is that they won’t get everything done.  Setting a timer ensures you stay on track and don’t spend too much time on any one task on your to-do list. 

Switch On “Do Not Disturb”

The importance of “Do Not Disturb” should never be underestimated. Turning off all those notifications from emails, social media, messaging services, and other apps will reduce the number of disruptions you have during your focus time.

The majority of smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets have a “Do Not Disturb” or Focus Assist function that prevents notifications from popping up on your device. Switch these functions on and give yourself a period of uninterrupted work.

Use a Productivity App

Productivity apps, such as kōno, are useful tools to help you get the most out of your day. They help with the all-important schedule and ensure you stick to the plan by alerting you when each of your sessions is due to finish.

You can make single tasking relatively easy by using a focus or deep work session in the kōno app: it will clear your desktop and block interruptions by automatically switching off notifications and closing unnecessary apps. And, if you’ve got that one particular website that you find yourself constantly checking on throughout the day, kōno can block your access to it during focus time.

The Morale of the Story: Single-Task — Don't Multitask

Planning your working day, focusing on one task at a time, and switching on “Do Not Disturb” could all help you alter your habits and avoid task switching. Not only will it increase your productivity and improve the quality of your output, it could also help prevent mental exhaustion, lower stress levels, and keep your memory working at full capacity.

So stop squandering your precious brainpower and commit to working on one thing at a time.  Both the quality and quantity of your work will soar. 

Jackie Smart
LinkedIn Profile

Mulitasking FAQs

What is multitasking, and how does it work?

Multitasking is the act of performing several activities at once, such as writing a document or replying to emails while participating in a teleconference. Trying to accomplish more than one thing at once is known as multitasking, frequently resulting in moving back and forth between tasks or leaving one work unfinished to complete another.

Is multitasking effective, or does it hinder productivity?

In most cases, multitasking hurts productivity. Our brains are unable to carry out several things at once. When we believe we're multitasking, we often juggle many tasks simultaneously. Concentrating on a single activity is a considerably more effective strategy for most people.

How can I improve my multitasking skills?

With practice, juggling many things can become less complicated and frustrating. With each project you complete, your multitasking abilities will increase. Starting with jobs related to one another is an excellent way to hone your multitasking abilities. For instance, group posting tasks together if you need to publish to many different social media sites during the day.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of multitasking?

Excessive stress and burnout, issues with mental health, memory loss, and decreased productivity are some drawbacks of multitasking. The advantages of multitasking include higher productivity, less procrastination, more time available, and potential long-term cost savings.

Can multitasking negatively affect my brain and mental health?

All neuroscientists concur that multitasking is unhealthy. Switching between tasks often depletes the brain's essential oxygenated glucose supply, thereby depleting it. Exhaustion from a lack of oxygenated glucose eventually results in mental tiredness, which can irritate you and raise your stress and anxiety levels.

How can I avoid distractions while multitasking?

Avoid dividing your attention more than necessary, and think about not multitasking if you want to increase your productivity. Write down your diversions to return to them later, such as items you want to study or ideas you don't want to lose, and establish priorities and deadlines to help you stay on track.

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