We’ve all had those days where we’ve woken up knowing we had a lengthy to-do list to tackle. You try to set yourself up for success by catching up on emails while drinking your morning coffee and working on a presentation while taking a conference call, but somehow at the end of the day you still find yourself with a disappointingly large number of the items left unticked. You were a master multitasker, so why did things still fall through the cracks? The hard truth is that we can’t do it all, but buying into the myth of multitasking allows us to convince ourselves that we don’t have to make hard decisions about where to spend our time.
For many of us, our natural inclination is to try and combine tasks together, and in theory this makes sense. We think that by doing two things at once we are doubling the amount of tasks we can accomplish, but in reality it has the opposite effect. The fact of the matter is human beings are hardwired to be mono-taskers, and by jumping from task to task we are actually forcing our brains to constantly switch gears. We are working harder to do things at a lower level of quality and exhausting our mental reserves as a result.
Why you aren’t built to multi-task
Neuroscientists have found that the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for helping us pay attention to a given task. Occupying both the left and right sides of the brain, the prefrontal cortex coordinates with other neurological areas to accomplish tasks, and when charged with one task the left and the ride side are able to work together. However, when you try and multitask the two sides are forced to divide and conquer in order to attempt accomplishing two tasks at the same time, meaning neither are benefiting from the full force of the prefrontal cortex.
In fact, what we call “multitasking” is more often than not actually something psychologists call “rapid task-switching.” An easy way to visualize this is to think about what happens when you answer a text while watching a movie. Your eyes have to move from the movie screen to your phone screen, and you will inevitably miss part of the movie while you have shifted your focus. True multitasking is impossible, because your attention and consciousness only has the ability to give its full and undivided attention to one thing at a time.
Multitasking affects overall attentiveness
This concept has become more complicated in today’s world thanks to social media and the internet. It takes energy for the brain to switch focus, and this includes when we pop open our apps for a quick scroll. While it may feel like only a few minutes lost, every time we do so our brain must exert huge amounts of energy to find where it left off before the switch and then reassemble the surrounding contextual elements for the task you returned to.
Although the amount of time may be relatively small, they can add up to large amounts when people switch their focus back and forth repeatedly. One study found that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. Conversely, an hour spent on one thing followed by an hour on another is actually a better way to multitask, because the cost of task-switching will be much less on the whole.
Multitasking impairs learning
Full and undivided attention is essential to learning. If we allow multitasking to become a habit, we can lose the ability to tune out the rest of the world and engage in deeper processing and learning. Although we often assume that our memories fail at the moment we can’t recall a fact or a concept, the failure may have actually happened at the time we originally attempted to save the memory. According to neuroscientists, the moment of “encoding” a memory is what matters most for retention, and studies have found that when our attention is divided due to multitasking during encoding, we remember that bit of information less well–– or worse not at all.
Additionally, some research has found that when we allow ourselves to be distracted by multitasking, our brains store and process information in a different, less useful way. Think of how when you crammed for a quiz you may be have been able to recall enough information to regurgitate it and pass, but likely forgot all about it a week later, leading you stumped when you must use all of the information you learned to extend and extrapolate the concept on the final exam.
Multitaskers make more mistakes
It makes sense, right? If you have failed to properly pay attention and encode information, you are bound to make more mistakes in the long run. This is the logical consequence to the lack of focus that comes with multitasking: when doing several things at once your mind is divided between them, so it’s only natural that your mistakes will multiply. When you multitask, you also become less adept at filtering out irrelevant information, which can lead to overlap between tasks that can confuse the mind and cause errors.
While making mistakes at work is obviously detrimental to your overall performance, there is another area of life in which making a multitasking mistake can even be fatal: driving a car. We’ve all come to know that texting while driving can lead to accidents, but unfortunately even talking on the phone while driving can potentially be dangerous. Even if your eyes are on the road, your brain is still diverting some of its attention to the conversation, and the resulting “dual tasking” is associated with reduced activity in regions of the brain important for attention and poorer driving performance as a result.
How to avoid the multitasking trap
Hopefully by this point you’ve come to understand the detriment that multitasking can be to your productivity and life as a whole, but that is only half the battle. We are often naturally inclined to multitask and it would be unrealistic to assume that you could instantly stop and gain perfect focus on every single task––life and distractions often do not allow for it.
One thing you can do that is a step in the right direction is returning to that lengthy, overwhelming list. Rather than looking at it and seeing what tasks you can try and lump together, instead try to turn it into a timetable and schedule time to complete each one without the distractions of your phone. Even checking emails can divert focus, so scheduling a specific time to devote toward answering them is key. Make sure to also account for the inevitable distractions that will occur outside of your control when planning out how much time to commit toward each task.
To further limit distractions, take advantage of your smartphone’s tools such as muting notifications or even turning off the data and wifi completely. As explored above, the amount of focus placed on a task greatly impacts the retention and understanding you derive from it, and by limiting them as much as possible from the get-go you better set yourself up for success in that regard. And if you do need to switch tasks, take the time to write down what is important about the current task before doing so. This not only helps you let go and fully focus on your new job, but also gives your brain a launching point for when you return.