Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Most of us believe that we are good at multitasking and that multitasking makes us more productive. We are convinced that we can email, surf the web, and use apps while watching television and eating while having a conversation.
But when multitasking may seem to be helping to achieve a lot, psychologists and neuroscientists found that we can’t technically multitask. What we actually do is switching tasks very fast. And this costs us a lot of our time and makes us much less efficient.
“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” - Michael Harris, writer
Yesterday, I was talking about this article to my wife. I told her that I found many researches concluding that multitasking was inefficient. She was surprised and she highlighted that being able to multitask is a skill, which recruiters are looking for, and I have to say that considering the various job descriptions I saw in the past, multitasking was often a requirement.
So what is multitasking?
Multitasking is the ability to deal with more than one thing at the same time. While this is achievable by a computer, Research by MIT Neuroscientist George Miller demonstrated that the brain can only manage limited information at the same time.
So let’s explore the reality of multitasking
Imagine yourself on a tennis court. Your opponent is in the other side of the court. But instead of sending you 1 ball at a time, he sends you 3. How do you feel about it? What do you think will happen?
Let’s take another example. As you are now reading this article your brain is unable to simultaneously remember what you had for lunch yesterday. Ah…, you probably found out what you ate, but, in order to do so, you had to stop reading this article for some time and you actually switch task, hadn’t you?
You are not convinced yet. So let’s play a quick game.
Draw two horizontal lines on a paper and ask someone to time you. Ready, Go.
On the first line, write: I am a great multitasker
On the second line write the numbers from 1-20 sequentially like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 20
How much time did it take to write both series?
Now, let’s multitask. Draw two more horizontal lines. The rules are a bit different. Write first a letter on the first line, and then a number on the second line. Then go back to the 1st line to write the second letter and then to the second line for the second letter (see picture below).
How much time did it take you? I bet your time doubled at least compare with the first round and you may have made some errors.
Of course, this test is quite basic but it gives you a good idea of the reality. We are better at monotasking than at multitasking. We know it but we are addicted to multitasking, especially nowadays where we hardly have to move a finger to find out what tomorrow's weather will be, or check the latest Instagram post of our favorite influencer.
What is the impact of multitasking?
J.S. Rubinstein, D.E. Meyer and J.E. Evans revealed in their research at Stanford University that multitasking is somewhere like 40% less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Neuroscientist John Medina following some other research concluded that it actually takes more time to get things done when you try to multitask with a higher risk of error.
But do you really need some scientific research to demonstrate that multitasking doesn’t work? Have you ever experienced a situation where you were talking on the phone with a colleague and suddenly, you noticed that you lost him? He was probably focusing on an email or an instant message and was no longer listening to you.
How to explain that we do it if we know it does not work?
When we complete a small task (like sending an email or posting a tweet), we receive a dose of dopamine, our reward hormone. Since our brain likes dopamine, we are encouraged to keep completing small tasks that give us instant gratification. This creates a feedback loop that makes us feel like we are accomplishing a lot, when we are actually not doing much.
So what is the solution.
Have you ever read a captivating book and time stands still. You look up from the pages hours later, surprised by how much you have read. This is getting in flow and this can help you to increase significantly your productivity. What you have to do is to focus on one thing at a time.
Do you want to try? Check this article I wrote on the Pomodoro technique.
G. A. Miller - “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits of our capacity for processing information” - Psychological Review
John Medina. "Brain Rules" - Pear Press
J.S. Rubinstein, D.E. Meyer and J.E. Evans. “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching” - Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance