Focus at Work//

Multitasking is a Myth

We pay a price when we try to focus on more than one thing at a time.

The widely held belief that we can multitask without sacrificing the quality of our attention is a fallacy. The brain simply can’t fully focus when it’s engaged in what’s known as fragmented work. We often think we are being super-productive, checking things off, and maximizing productivity. But that’s not what’s really happening. A report published in the American Psychological Society’s Journal of Experimental Psychology found that multitasking can cause productivity to drop as much as 40 percent.

This is even more true for those who think they’re particularly good at multitasking. In one 2012 study, David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, found that the better people thought they were at multitasking, the more likely their performance was subpar. While Strayer identified a tiny minority of outliers he calls supertaskers, most of us pay a price when we try to focus on more than one thing at a time.

That’s because interrupted work comes at a cost. As researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the Institute of Psychology at Humboldt University in Berlin found, interruptions lead to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.” Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, puts it this way: “When we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless, but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts.” Each small shift results in a cognitive cost. For example, every time you switch between responding to emails and writing an important paper, you’re draining precious brain resources and energy just to get back to where you started. Miller’s advice is to avoid multitasking, because “it ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought. . . . As humans, we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought, we can only hold a little bit of information in the mind at any single moment.”

The flow of interruptions and distractions can be relentless, but when you get out in front of it, you can take control of your time and give your attention to what is most important. 

Adapted from “Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps,” by Marina Khidekel and the editors of Thrive Global. Learn more and pre-order your copy here.

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