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Natalia Rossingol

Beyond Busyness: Why it's Time to Rethink Multitasking

Is multitasking a desirable skill, or a drain on your productivity? Let's dive into the research about multitasking - the results are sure to surprise you.

It's generally believed that multitasking is a great productivity skill and time-saver.

After all, it sounds like a no-brainer: by working simultaneously on several things, you complete them faster and free up more time for the next project.

However, the actual effectiveness of multitasking is a huge misconception.

While it might be useful in simple everyday situations (say, washing the dishes while listening to a podcast), it doesn’t work for more complex tasks. In fact, it leads to mistakes and mental exhaustion.

And research shows that multitasking is not just counterproductive - it’s detrimental to our health, as it overloads our nervous system.

In this article, we will explore the nature of multitasking, explain the negative consequences it might cause, and suggest ways to avoid it and become truly productive.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is when you perform more than one activity at a time, rapidly switch between multiple tasks and constantly shift attention from one thing to another. 

Despite the common view that multitasking makes you more productive, it’s actually a myth. On the contrary, multitasking might be counter-productive, making you spend more time on your tasks and contributing to various problems like concentration loss, workload paralysis, or burnout.

Research on multitasking shows pessimistic results:

So what actually happens in our brain when we multitask?

Multitasking: a scientific view

When we take on a task, three brain networks get involved in the process:

  • The frontoparietal control network – identifies the goal, electing information relevant to achieve it, and disregarding irrelevant information;
  • The dorsal attention network – mediates attention allocation;
  • The ventral attention network – supports automatic attention reorienting.

As a result of interactions among the networks, it might not be easy for our brain to decide what information is relevant and what’s not even when processing just one task. And when we multitask, this problem only gets worse: there are multiple goals and multiple sources of information that can be either relevant or irrelevant.

Research shows that our brain is not good at performing two or more tasks simultaneously - it lacks the cognitive and neural systems that would enable us to process two activities at the same time.

However, scientists have not reached a single conclusion on how exactly multitasking and human brain function are related.

There are two main competing views: either multitasking leads to problems with focus and distractibility, or people who are easily distracted are more prone to multitasking. In any case, some people are naturally good at multitasking and use it as a part of their work style.

What’s curious, a decision to multitask is influenced by human perception. If we believe that we have the traits and abilities to multitask successfully, we’re more likely to do it.

However, there is a catch: our self-conception and actual abilities often do not coincide. This means people who are not mentally ready to perform multiple tasks simultaneously can still believe they can succeed – and, eventually, get distracted by irrelevant stimuli even while working on a single task. 

Examples of multitasking

So how do we multitask in both everyday life and the work environment? Here are some examples:

  • Speaking to customers over the phone while buying groceries
  • Treating multiple patients in an emergency room
  • Cooking and listening to a podcast
  • Driving and taking directions from our phones
  • Serving food and taking an order
  • Listening to a presentation and writing an email
  • Starting a new project while still working on the previous one

What are the downsides of multitasking?

Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion… we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner.Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist.

We all multitask daily. We eat and read the news at the same time; we listen to music while running; we drive while chatting to passengers in our car. This might make you think that multitasking is just a natural process that poses no risk at all.

However, how many times have you missed your turning because you were too distracted by a conversation? Sometimes, you really need to focus the full extent of your attention - but multitasking means you can't do that.

We have to look at multitasking, then, as a bit of a "false friend" – one that might considerably lower your productivity and negatively impact your results.

Let’s take a look at the downsides of multitasking and see why it’s not the best tactic:  

You lose time switching between the tasks

The “how” and “when” we will perform our tasks are controlled by the executive control function of the brain. This function consists of two stages:

  1. Goal shifting: we decide we will do one thing and not another.
  2. Rule activation: starting to follow the rules for the new task.

Moving through these stages does not take much time – it might take only a part of a second. However, these seconds add up when you keep switching between tasks back and forth. The result is “task switch costs” – a reduction in accuracy and speed of performing the task. It takes you longer to complete the tasks and increases the chance of error.  

It’s not a big deal when you’re working on simple cognitive tasks, like talking on the phone and writing a grocery list. However, even half of a second is crucially important with more complex tasks - for example, when driving on the road.

You process information slower

When there is too much information to process, your mind gets confused and might lose the ability to differentiate what’s important and what’s not.

Overwhelmed by information, you might experience mental blocks, which also lead to time loss – and frustration.

Finally, multitasking neutralizes your ability to perform tasks on “autopilot” – those we can do automatically, thanks to previous experience. The use of automatic behaviors is enormous, as it helps free up mental resources. However, when we switch between multiple tasks, we lose the ability to act automatically.

You make more mistakes

A failure to shift attention during multitasking leads to mistakes – and these mistakes may be as bad as health and safety risks, accidents, and property damage.

A high possibility of mistakes during multitasking also means that you may have to double-check your work frequently. This is counter-productive.

Multitasking has a bad impact on memory

Task switching slows down cognitive processes and disrupts memory, affecting the ability to recall details and making it harder to return to the first task. This, in turn, has a bad impact on creativity, since creativity is connected to the ability to keep in mind multiple associations.

Also, research suggests that unlike multitasking, uni- or mono-tasking (working on one thing at a time) is considered to protect your brain from serious disorders like Alzheimer’s.

It takes you out of the state of flow

The concept of “flow” was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an American psychologist of Hungarian origin, who described it as a state when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” which leads to creativity and well-being.  

According to Csikszentmihalyi, some of the characteristics of the flow are:

  • Complete concentration on the task;
  • A feeling of control over the task;
  • Effortlessness and ease.

As we can see, these characteristics cannot be applied to multitasking - even more, they're opposite to it: to experience the state of flow, you would have to avoid all the distractions – and, of course, focus on one task at a time.

It causes chronic stress

People who regularly multitask experience several negative effects. A constant cognitive overload, a necessity to double-check your work and correct mistakes, and lower creativity can negatively influence your emotional health, leading to anxiety and stress.

Why do people multitask?

Despite all the evidence that multitasking decreases our productivity and stresses us out, we still keep practicing it. It sounds counterintuitive – however, if you look at the reasons why it happens, it becomes clear that multitasking, unfortunately, is rather inevitable:

1. We’re simply addicted to it

To our brain, getting distracted feels good. Our prefrontal cortex craves novelty, and this can be gained through multitasking, as it provides you with external stimulation. The result is a dopamine-addiction feedback loop – since novelty gives you pleasure, you get addicted to distraction.   

2. It's unavoidable

Multitasking is an essential element of work in today’s digital world. Modern technologies created devices and systems that have made us available 24/7. Information changes not just daily but hourly (indeed, if not more often than that), and the volume of information you need to process might be enormous. As a result, our brain is busy all the time.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. – Daniel J. Levitin.

Unfortunately, falling behind in the process of information exchange might mean losing opportunities and, eventually, getting irrelevant.

This is why you continuously need to switch between devices and media, respond to messages, and check data – in other words, you’re required to be ready to react anytime. This, of course, causes interruption and change of activity that cannot be avoided.

Besides, you often need to take on several projects at work, for different reasons - for example, because your department is understaffed, or because you're one of the few subject-matter experts on the team.

3. Multitasking is considered a great skill in the workplace

In the business environment, multitasking is respected and desired. I mean, how many times have you looked at a job ad that said something like "Must thrive on multitasking in a fast-paced environment"?

There's two big reasons why managers like to have multitaskers on their team:

  • It's seen as a time-saver. The ability to do two or more tasks at a time lets you finish your projects sooner, giving you more time to do other things. For example, translating a document and preparing a topic-related vocabulary list simultaneously will definitely save you some time – you could write the new words out as you go, not having to look them up twice.
  • It's seen as an alternative to hiring additional staff. When a person can do more than one task at a time, there is no need to hire another employee. Naturally, this reduces organizational costs. The presence of an employee who can both give a haircut and handle the front desk will eliminate the need to hire two separate specialists.

How busy people can avoid multitasking

Practice monotasking

Monotasking, as we've already mentioned, means focusing on a single task, minimizing interruptions. It’s the opposite of multitasking – and, unlike multitasking, it saves you all the energy you spend on shifting between activities, helping you get rid of mental clutter.

But monotasking is not just a method of doing your work. It a mindset that makes you reexamine your relationship with time and be intentional about where your attention is being spent.

So how can you monotask effectively?     

Eliminate or limit distractions

Disable all notifications on your phone while you’re working. Make sure your working space is quiet and comfortable. If working in an open space, use noise-cancelling headphones. Ask people to not disturb you.   

Also, look through your to-do list and think if you can omit tasks that would distract you from something more important. Do you have to attend that meeting? Do you need to need to take on that assignment? Sometimes things look important, but not always they really are so.

Manage your time

Working on your time management techniques and skills can significantly help you do more in less time. Here are some effective tools that can increase your productivity:

  • Time-blocking: scheduling every single part of your day and assigning tasks to them, so that you can work on those tasks within a specific time frame.
  • Time-boxing: dividing your day into parts so that you can work on specific tasks and finish them within that time frame.
  • The “pomodoro” technique: working in 25-minute time blocks.
  • Task batching: grouping similar tasks so you can complete them all at once.
  • 4 Ds of time management: dividing your tasks into 4 categories - tasks to be delegated, delayed, done, and deleted.

Practice deep work

The concept of “deep work” is very similar to monotasking – however, deep work is more about making a conscious effort to deeply concentrate, not just about doing one task at a time. 

The term “deep work” was coined by Cal Newport, who defined it as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Newport underlines that only deep work brings outstanding results – and that, unfortunately, it’s quite rare in the modern world, full of distractions and shallow activities.

Here are some pieces of advice he gives on how to practice deep work:

  • Schedule every minute of your day: By planning your day, you do not restrict yourself – you create the conditions for yourself to concentrate.
  • Don’t take breaks from distraction – take breaks from focus.
  • Schedule your breaks, and don’t use the internet to entertain yourself. This will help you train yourself to resist distractions.
  • Embrace the boredom: We hate the very idea of being bored. However, boredom – which is, a state when you’re doing literally nothing and your mind is just relaxing – is very useful for our creativity. It helps reset our brain, and sets our subconscious mind in motion. So when want to take a break, do not use your phone – talk to a colleague, have coffee, or just stare out of the window.
  • Make “boredom” your daily routine – schedule so-called “negative time” when you’re not doing anything and letting yourself recharge.
People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. – Cal Newport

Set priorities

Not all the things you need to do are equally important, so not all the things should be approached in the same way. By figuring out what is really needed for you to achieve your goals, you give your attention to things that make a difference – and not let yourself waste energy on something that doesn't matter that much.


Multitasking is more about quantity, not quality. Trying to accomplish more in less time, you lose focus and risk omitting something important. By teaching yourself to concentrate and organize your time, you add true value to your life, becoming more conscious. It won’t only make you productive – it will give you a peace of mind, improving your mental health.   

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