Multitasking: Can it help you accomplish your goals, or is it just a distraction from them?
The practice of multitasking seems innocent enough. After all, we've all experienced the rush of completing two (or more) tasks at once, like
- Folding laundry while listening to a podcast
- Driving while texting our mom
- Brewing coffee while booking a vacation
However, not every type of multitasking is that straightforward.
More often than not, you have to concentrate on what you are doing, which helps you get more done. This is because sometimes, it's easier not to do the task at hand and instead waste your time with simpler tasks that slow down your progress.
Which brings us to our question: is multitasking effective, or does it undermine our goals?
This guide will shed light on everything you need to know about multitasking and how to sidestep its downsides.
What is multitasking?
Multitasking is the ability to do more than one thing at a time. The word multitask comes from the phrase “to do several things at once.” It can have the same meaning as the parallel task, which means to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.
Multitasking has become an important part of modern life. People use it daily for different purposes, such as watching TV, listening to music, and doing homework simultaneously.
There are three types of multitasking:
- Task switching – This is where you switch back and forth between tasks. For example, if you're typing an email to someone while checking Facebook every few minutes or so.
- Multitasking – Multitasking is the act of performing multiple tasks or jobs at the same time. It involves dividing attention among many activities or responsibilities.
- Attention Residue – It happens when you perform several tasks quickly without giving yourself time to rest between them. This can cause attention residue that hampers your ability to focus on the next task..
Does multitasking make you more efficient?
When you focus on a particular work, your brain's motivational system is activated. This activation causes both sides of your prefrontal cortex to work together.
Multitasking, however, may be counterproductive to your productivity. Scientists believe that even when you think you are doing two things at once, the right and left sides of your prefrontal cortex take turns performing each task, making you less efficient.
A study by INSERM looking at the cognitive abilities of 16 young women and 16 young men finds that people can't perform more than two tasks at once effectively. This is because the brain only has two hemispheres for managing tasks.
Multitask can harm our mental and physical health
The human brain can only do one thing at a time. If you think you can do multiple things simultaneously, you are confusing the act of doing something with the act of thinking about doing something.
For example, when driving a car while talking on the phone and listening to music simultaneously, you are actually performing three different activities: driving, talking on the phone, and listening to music.
However, your brain is not thinking about three activities at once — it's doing each separately and switching between them quickly.
According to a study, multitasking can affect memory retention and long-term memory. Another study by ScieneDirect that examined elderly women found that multitasking can affect their gait and lead to a greater number of falls and broken bones.
In compiled information of researchers on 1,400 pedestrians in New York City who were reportedly hit by a car, 20% of teenagers were distracted by a mobile phone when they were hit, compared to 10% of adults.
Switch tasks = lose productivity
Switching tasks can cost you a lot of time.
The main reason is that getting into a new task takes time.
When you switch tasks, you have to stop whatever you're doing and think about what you will do next. This means that every time you switch tasks, there's some cognitive overhead involved in getting back into the new task. If you're in a flow state, then this extra mental effort will slow down your progress on the new task.
If you're trying to get something done quickly and efficiently, frequently switching tasks isn't the way to go.
Multitasking can hinder your performance
A research study suggests that it takes you about 25 minutes on average to bounce back to the original task after an interruption. Another study found that employees who multitask take 50% longer to complete a task than those who work on a single task.
Clearly, multitasking can negatively affect performance when people try to do two things at once that require different levels of focus, such as doing math problems while chatting with a friend who's sitting nearby.
For example, if you talk on the phone while driving, your attention will be divided between things happening in front of you and your phone call's story. This makes it more likely that you'll miss something important — like an approaching car or pedestrian — because your attention isn't focused on driving.
Multitasking can destroy relationships
The problem with multitasking is that it doesn't give anyone enough time or attention, leading to feelings of resentment and jealousy. If you're constantly distracted by your phone or other things around you, neither person will feel fully satisfied in the relationship.
In fact, a study reported that your engagement with technology could make your partner depressed.
How to make multitasking less scary and maintain productivity
Trim down your to-do list
If you have too many things on your plate, it will be difficult for you to focus on one thing at a time. The more tasks you have on your plate, the less efficient you become as each task takes up more brain space for you to complete them all successfully.
If possible, try focusing on just one project at a time and then move on to another once you’ve completed it successfully.
Pro Tip: Prioritize based on your goals. If there’s a task that needs to be completed ASAP but isn’t as important as something else, put it on hold until after the rest is done (or delegate it).
Use tools like Todoist, TickTick, and Microsoft To Do to trim down your to-do list and prioritize your tasks. Mind-mapping software can also align your tasks and increase your effectiveness and productivity.
Block out time for deep work and email
In today's world, we're constantly distracted by our inboxes and many other tasks vying for our attention. But the idea that multitasking is necessary for the business is just a myth.
In fact, research shows that knowledge workers spend 60% of their time on coordination instead of the skilled, strategic jobs they were employed to do. Thus, teams prioritizing focus or deep work and email at work can produce better results than their competition.
So how do you find time to focus on deep work (i.e., work requiring intense concentration) when there are so many distractions around?
Here are two tips to help you block out time for deep work and avoid multitasking:
- Block out specific times in your calendar for deep work – Either an hour or two each week or just 30 minutes per day. Schedule the time in advance so you don't forget it or get derailed by emails or other tasks.
- Don't spend too much time checking email during these blocks of uninterrupted time unless there's something important that requires immediate action (and only then if it's truly urgent).
Pro Tip: If you're feeling overwhelmed by everything on your plate, consider hiring an assistant who can help manage some of those responsibilities — freeing up more time for deep work!
Alternate between periods of focus and breaks
When people think about multitasking, they usually imagine themselves switching between tasks quickly while working on multiple projects at once. But there's another kind of multitasking that goes beyond — alternating between periods of focus and breaks throughout the day.
Alternating between periods of focus and breaks lets you get the best of both worlds: focused periods where you're working at full capacity, followed by shorter breaks that allow your mind to rest up before returning to deep concentration mode again.
Newport’s deep work theory also suggests that logging out of all communication tools and work without being interrupted for long periods daily can increase productivity. You can aim for 60-90 minutes of distraction-free time.
Optimize your work environment for focus
The modern workplace is rife with distractions.
Email, Slack, Twitter, and Facebook are all vying for your attention. You have a phone that buzzes whenever someone sends you a text message. And then there's your computer screen, which is almost always open to a browser window or another program calling out for your attention.
But it doesn't have to be that way. There are steps you can take to optimize your work environment for focus so multitasking is less scary and maintains productivity:
- Set expectations ahead of time
- Turn off notifications
- Unplug from email when possible (and don't check it first thing in the morning)
- Close everything else
- Set boundaries between work and play
Most importantly, put away all non-essential items (phones, books) and close any tabs or windows that might distract you from what's important right now. If you need these things later, save them in a folder for easy access later.
Use tools to your advantage
Multitasking tools aren't just for making your life easier — they can also help you focus on one task at a time. For example, Google Docs lets multiple people work on the same document simultaneously, which means less time wasted trying to find what someone else changed.
Here are some more useful tools for making multitasking less scary:
- Toggl – Toggl is a time-tracking tool that allows you to track your time on different projects and tasks. It lets you see how long each project takes and what percentage of your workday is spent on specific tasks or projects. This will help you determine where to focus your efforts to maximize productivity and minimize distractions.
- Use tools like Trello or Asana to manage your tasks – These apps let you create lists with tasks in them and move them around as they get done. They also let you assign tasks to other people, so they know what they're working on and what's left for them to do. This helps keep everyone on track without constantly checking in with each other about what's been done and what hasn't.
Multitasking tools especially come in handy if you’re hiring remote workers. Latest remote work statistics show that 20% of remote workers worry more about overworking than their day’s share.
In that case, you can use tools like Trello, Saved.io, Google Drive, and Slack to make collaboration and multitasking easier for your remote team.
Want to be productive? Focus on one thing at a time, and you'll get more done!
Multitasking, while presented as a great way to get more done in less time, turns out to be an ineffective way of getting work done. It is a huge drain on our cognitive abilities.
The bottom line is that when it comes to handling multiple tasks simultaneously, our brains just aren't designed to do it well. And while some people can do a decent job of multitasking, most end up doing all of their tasks poorly—perhaps even damaging their careers as a result.