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Stop multitasking: The science-backed approach to having a better day

July 18, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is multitasking?

Is it good to multitask?

The benefits of focusing on one task at a time

Effective strategies to avoid multitasking

Your phone is going off, you have a deadline to meet, and there’s just enough time to throw a load of laundry in before your next meeting.

Does this sound chaotic, or does it sound like business as usual? Although many of us are familiar with the downsides of multitasking, we have a hard time giving up the practice. The implicit promise of getting more done at the same time feels seductive. After all, there’s only so much time in the day, and there’s always something competing for our attention. Why not give in and just work on everything at once?

It’s not that multitasking isn’t possible. It’s that many of us fall into the trap of thinking that we’re better at it than we really are. But if we want to tackle all the tasks and do all the things, we need to understand when it makes sense to multitask, and when we’re better off giving a task our full attention.

That doesn’t mean we have to completely give up our dreams of efficiency and productivity. It means that we just have to tweak our idea of what productivity and efficiency look like.

Learn how to break the draw of multitasking — and what to do instead.

What is multitasking?

We’ve all been there before. We have two (or more) tasks that are technically possible to do at the same time, so why not do them both? If we don’t give in, we’re just going to keep thinking about it anyway.

Most people think of multitasking as doing two or more tasks simultaneously. However, since the human brain is very limited in how much we can truly do at one time, this is a misconception. Multitasking is the practice of switching rapidly from one task to another — and we’re not as good at it as we think.

The science behind multitasking

Neuroscience research shows that when we try to do two complex tasks at the same time, our brain doesn't actually multitask. Instead, it rapidly switches back and forth between the two tasks. Even though we feel like we’re handling both tasks like a pro, we’re actually using up valuable working memory resources. This task switching makes us far less observant — and far more prone to errors. 

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Multitasking and productivity

You’ve probably heard that multitasking is bad for your productivity. And it’s true – according to a study by a neuroscientist at Stanford University, task switching can lead to a 40% drop in productivity.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive control, which allows us to focus on relevant information and ignore irrelevant stimuli. This ability declines with age, which is why young adults are better at multitasking than older adults. 

Media multitasking (using multiple media devices at the same time) has been found to be particularly detrimental to task performance. When people switch from one task to another, they experience a phenomenon called switching costs – a temporary decline in cognitive efficiency that ranges from 5-15%. 

Multitasking also causes people to lose track of what they’ve done, ultimately resulting in longer task completion time. Studies show that once a task is interrupted, it takes significantly longer to complete — even if the interruption is brief. In another study, workers needed about 25 minutes to get back on track after being distracted from a task.

Is it good to multitask?

In short, no — multitasking can be detrimental to both your productivity and your overall well-being. Not only are we less productive, but we feel more stressed. Instead of feeling confident, we feel anxious, impatient, and irritable.

Of course, there’s a wide range of multitasking pairings; some are clearly more harmful than others. It’s probably fine if you listen to a podcast while doing the dishes — and in fact, this kind of multitasking can help motivate you to complete undesirable tasks. But this works because the cognitive load required for the different tasks doesn’t compete with each other.

When the task requires a quick reaction time or close attention, juggling tasks could be fatal. The tenths of a second we lose may not matter much when doing the dishes, but they could make all the difference when driving a car.

multitasking-person-drinking-coffee-on-phone-while-driving

Because we tend to overestimate our multitasking abilities, it helps to set rules around what tasks deserve your full attention. For example, I let myself listen to music or an audiobook while driving, since they require very little interaction. I learned very quickly that even though listening to foreign language lessons or taking a phone call seemed like the same thing, the cognitive load was much different.

You might, at first, feel like you’re missing out by only working on one thing at a time. However, learning to focus on a single task can actually improve your well-being and productivity.

The benefits of focusing on one task at a time

The positive effects of multitasking seem obvious, but the downsides are significant. In contrast, here are some benefits of “single-tasking:”

1. Less stressful

As we mentioned before, the cognitive work of multitasking is significant. Your brain wasn’t designed to work on more than one task at a time, and it’s happier when it doesn’t have to. After you get past the fear that you’re not being productive enough, you’ll find yourself enjoying the single-minded attention.

2. Builds momentum

When you focus on one thing at a time, you tend to complete tasks much faster. And — as any productivity enthusiast knows, the real win isn’t getting the task done, but crossing it off your list. I mean, is there anything more satisfying than that?

You’ll build confidence and momentum as you cross off tasks. Few things are more frustrating than working all day on several different tasks, and not being able to say you finished a single one.

3. Higher quality output

One of the negative effects of multitasking is a sharp increase in errors. When you give your attention to one task, you tend to make less mistakes. This decrease in errors comes with a few nice bonuses — like shorter completion times and a higher chance of getting into a flow state. Single-tasking is an easy way to improve your work performance.

4. Strengthens focus

One of the secrets of meditation practice is that you don’t actually have to empty your mind. The real benefit of mindfulness comes from learning to continually return to the same point of focus.

You could think of single-tasking as a mindfulness practice. Every time you successfully resist the urge to check your cell phone or start a new project, you strengthen your ability to focus. This habit pays dividends, like boosting your creativity and your satisfaction with the work you do.

multitasking-person-singing-while-doing-dishes

Effective strategies to avoid multitasking

Learning to single-task seems worthwhile, but the real challenge is learning how to stop multitasking. As long as our work, home, and other responsibilities keep clamoring for our attention, multitasking will seem like a seductive solution.

Here are 7 ways to avoid falling for the multitasking myth:

1. Buy into the science

There’s not much debate about multitasking — researchers seem pretty convinced that the costs aren’t worth the meager benefits. The challenge is overcoming the pressure (internal and external) to do more all at once. 

Educating yourself on the truth behind productivity can help you start to resist the urge. It may be a little uncomfortable at first, particularly if your work culture reinforces multitasking. But the benefits are worth it.

2. Create a schedule that works for you

Not everyone is created equal when it comes to circadian rhythms. If you’re a morning person, wake up early and get started on your most important tasks. If you work better at night, use the evenings to power through your to-do list. And if you need a break in the middle of the day (hint: most of us do) schedule it in. Find what works for you and stick to it.

3. Practice mindful rituals

When it comes to trying to focus on a task, rituals can be helpful. By setting up specific rituals for when you want to sit down and work on something, you can train your brain to know that it's time to focus. 

For example, whenever you sit down at your desk, you might take a deep breath and spend 30 seconds thinking about what you want to accomplish that day. Or you might put on a certain playlist when it’s time to work. Whatever the ritual, putting something simple in place can be a powerful cue for focus.

4. Limit distractions

When I really need to get work done, there’s one life hack I swear by.

I put away my phone.

Even when I think I can just “ignore it,” phones are designed to get your attention. The same is true for televisions, radios, and toddlers. If any of those are present in my workspace, that means I’m multitasking — whether I want to admit it or not.

Technology can be a huge help when it comes to managing your time and staying focused. You can use apps to block out distractions, set timers, and keep yourself on track. Plus, there are tons of great productivity tools out there that can help you get more done in less time.

Since I’m honestly terrible about putting my phone away, I use an app to stop me from using it. I find it really works well in conjunction with a Pomodoro timer. These mini digital detoxes often leave me feeling more productive and refreshed — even if it means missing a message or two.

5. Delegate

You can’t do everything yourself, so delegate tasks when possible. This will help you free up some time so you can focus on other things. One of my favorite adages is to “do the things that only you can do.” It helps me set my priorities. For example, anyone can fold my laundry, but not everyone can read my kids a bedtime story.

 

Be realistic about what you can do in a day, and prioritize doing the things only you can do. Make a list of all the action items that need to be tackled in a day. From there, go through each task with a timeline in mind. If it needs to be done, but could be done faster or better by someone else — outsource it.

6. Schedule energy, not time

When I first started working with my BetterUp Coach, I used to get frustrated if I didn’t finish my entire to-do list. I couldn’t figure out why a seemingly short list of tasks felt so daunting. 

My coach encouraged me to measure my day based on energy, not time. Certain tasks don’t take a lot of time, but require a lot of mental energy (like sitting in a Zoom meeting). Some tasks are longer, but don’t take as much to complete (like reading a good book).

This understanding helped me learn to manage cognitive load as well. I try to pair this approach to time blocking with my daily schedule and energy cycles. For me, that means doing the most challenging, focused tasks early in the day, and saving low-energy, low-focus tasks for later in the afternoon.

7. Rest well

A key part of peak performance is recharging well. Switching tasks, as well as completing a series of tasks in rapid succession, takes a significant amount of energy. You can maximize the upsides of single-tasking by taking a moment to recharge your battery before tackling a new cognitive task. 

These breaks don’t need to last long — they’re simply an opportunity to let your brain rest before switching tasks. You can try meditating, listening to music, stretching, or eating a quick snack. Taking a walk outside is an excellent way to recharge, since it provides an endorphin boost, more oxygen to your brain, mild exercise, and some time away from the screen.

Quit multitasking for good

With so many competing priorities, staying busy feels like the answer. It’s hard to believe that if getting one thing done is good, getting two things done at the same time isn’t better.

Like many things, though, faster doesn’t mean better, and more doesn’t mean improved. The toll multitasking takes on your focus, concentration, well-being, and mental fitness isn’t worth it. Having your hands in many things doesn’t help you work smarter — just harder. Trade it in for something that makes a real difference.

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Published July 18, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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