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The Illusion of Multitasking

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

The art of multitasking is a skill desired by many. The phrase originated in the 1960s to refer to computer operating systems that could execute multiple tasks simultaneously. However, in the 21st century, multitasking is more frequently used to describe a skill harnessed by people.

Multitasking seems like an efficient way to get things done and we may even envy those around us, and in our teams, who appear to possess this skill. However, research suggests that it is a biological impossibility for humans to multitask and what you’re actually doing is quickly shifting your attention from one task to another and back again. When you switch between tasks your brain first has to process that you need to change tasks, activate the rules for the new task and remember where it got up to the last time. Although these may seem like fairly quick, subconscious processes, they take their toll on your cognitive processing ability and can be costly when you repeatedly switch back and forth between tasks.

We all have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth and attempting to fulfil the human illusion of multitasking can actually reduce your attention, comprehension and overall performance. Research also shows that people who frequently attempt multitasking struggle to filter out distractions and even when asked to focus on a single task they are less efficient. Researchers concluded that attempting to multitask changes how the brain functions, leading to decreased productivity even when focussed on a single task. Furthermore, attempting to multitask also impedes creativity and increases the likelihood of mistakes. The processes of creative thinking and avoiding mistakes both rely on our brains following a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas, and this is disrupted when we switch between tasks.

Our brains are not designed to multitask and attempting to do so can result in stress, burnout, and reduced productivity. There are several things you can do that will allow you to focus better and avoid the pitfalls of multitasking, including:

Removing temptation

You knew it was coming… put your phone away! It’s not enough to put it on vibrate because even the sound of it buzzing away is a distraction that will reduce your productivity. Research has also shown that, if it’s still within sight, even turning your phone off drains your cognitive resources because your brain has to actively avoid reaching for it. So, keep it out of sight!

Being Mindful of emails

Most people recognise the intrusive use of phones, we’re all guilty of stopping working to send a quick text or glancing over to check that notification, but when you’re working on a computer, it’s also important to be aware of emails. Desktop notifications are notifications none the less, designed to interrupt what you’re doing and draw you into the trap of switching between tasks. A study found that a task interrupted by email takes one third longer to completer, so setting time aside to proactively check your emails can allow you to turn off desktop notifications, protecting your workflow from being interrupted.

Working in Intervals

Scheduling time to check emails also allows you to have clear periods of focus for different tasks. Try deciding how long you will spend on a task before you begin and, if you’re really committed, set a timer. If you do find yourself losing focus, try and avoid scrolling social media as a pastime and try alternatives such as getting up and briefly walking around, making yourself a cup of tea or trying some quick and easy exercises. The brain is like a muscle – it gets better at the things you practice until they become habitual.

Keeping a pen and paper by your side

The tendency to become distracted is innate and impossible to bypass completely. However, one tactic to reduce the effects is keeping a pen and paper by your side. I don’t know about you but it’s always just as I get stuck into a task that I suddenly have an epiphany on how to solve that stubborn problem, have a great idea, or remember that I still haven’t put that washing in. Keeping a pen and paper allows me to quickly jot down ideas so that I don’t get fully side-tracked but still have the notes so that I don’t forget to come back to them later.

Multitasking may appear to be the most productive way to get things done, but the research demonstrates that this isn’t true. The reality is that, for humans, multitasking is an illusion. It simply reduces productivity and drains your cognitive resources whilst increasing stress and burnout in the long run. Try giving your full attention to each task and watch your productivity soar!


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