Multitasking for Trouble

Science shows why multitasking doesn’t work—and why we can’t stop doing it.

Stop! You’re reading this article, or at least skimming the start of it, right? What else do you have going on? Music? TV? Checking your email as it pings at you—or at least glancing to see whom it’s from?

It’s all happening at pretty much the same time, right? And you’re OK with that because, after all, it’s just multitasking. Everyone does it, and you can get more stuff done more quickly, right?

Nope. Not only is this wrong, you are changing your brain by doing it, making it weaker and less capable of concentrating when it needs to. The irony, however, is that you’ll feel better as you do it.

The term “multitasking” came to us via the computer engineering world. It referred to a computer’s capability of performing two or more tasks simultaneously. Human multitasking, of course, is our effort to do the same—or trying to execute a number of tasks in rapid succession. Sadly, even though the research says our brains simply cannot do it, we persist in trying.

Study after study documents our inability to multitask. This research all demonstrates the same realities:

» Multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent.

» Changing from one task to another takes a serious toll on productivity. People who multitask have a tougher time tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time.

» At its very best, the human brain may be capable of doing two things at once, as long as you don’t need to remember much of what you were doing.

» Doing many different things at once or switching rapidly from task to task can actually impair cognitive ability.

» Those people who think they’re the best at multitasking are probably the ones who have the least concentration and focus and who are, in fact, the least productive and efficient.

Why Do We Do It?

The media has been pretty active the past few years in announcing this research, but we still continue to do it. The question is why?

It turns out this is a function of our brains. An Ohio State University study from 2012 showed that students received an emotional boost from multitasking even as their cognitive capabilities decreased. Their satisfaction increased from the combination of activities, especially if one of the activities were entertaining or relaxing. And once people get used to multitasking, they can’t easily stop the behavior because it has become emotionally gratifying.

The implications of all this are far-reaching. Research done on a group of Stanford University students showed that basically one cannot learn new information and retain it in any useful way while other stimuli are present and even glancing attention paid is to it. In other words, your children, who may claim they can watch TV or listen to music and study at the same time, really cannot, at least not in a productive, efficient way.

You cannot answer email at the same time you are writing an important report—not if you want the report to be thoughtful and error-free. And the human brain’s inability to multitask is why people cannot text and drive, even if they are somehow able to keep their eyes on the road.

Stay out of Trouble

What are some solutions to multitasking to keep you out of trouble?

Read more about multitasking to convince yourself of its insidious, destructive and troublesome nature.

  • Do your work in 20-minute segments, including email. Give some thought to email (and phone calls) in general. How many are truly urgent? Why do you feel compelled to be constantly connected? Assess what those interruptions mean for your productivity and quality of work.
  • Take a break when you need it.

When psychiatrist and author Edward M. Hallowell described multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one,” he was putting it mildly. Believe him and the other researchers: multitasking just means asking for trouble.