Psychology and Neuroscience Blow Up the Myth of Effective Multitasking

Your days of believing you're good at multitasking are over. Turns out you've been fooling yourself.

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May I gore you with an inconvenient truth? (See what I did there?)

We sacrifice our power of full presence when we’re multitasking, and we do so for a perceived benefit of improved productivity that simply doesn’t exist.

Research indicates that multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more emotionally satisfied with their work, thus creating an illusion of productivity.

This bears repeating. Forget for a moment that multitasking can be incredibly rudewe’re not actually accomplishing what we think we are–we’ve been fooling ourselves.

In fact, research also shows that multitasking, i.e. trying to do two cognitive things at the same time, simply can’t be done–the mind doesn’t work that way. Even trying to parallel path a cognitive activity and a more automatic activity doesn’t really work. That’s why the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.

We believe we’re effective at multitasking when in reality we’re good at what researchers call “task-switching”.

Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.


But what we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

Says Miller, “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.” The brain is forced to switch among multiple cognitive tasks as these tasks use the same part of the brain.

The catch here is that this task-switching, despite how fast it occurs, is incredibly unproductive in reality–I mean like Candy Crush unproductive.

In fact, research indicates up to 40 percent of productivity could be lost due to task-switching. It actually takes more time to complete the tasks you’re switching between and you make more errors than when you focus on doing one task at a time in order.

Stanford study confirmed this by showing that those who multitask are indeed worse performers, and struggle because they can’t filter out irrelevant information, slowing down completion of the cognitive task at hand.

Additionally, studies have shown that it takes four times longer for the brain to recognize new things (further slowing down task completion) and that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn while we are multitasking.

The inefficiency of interrupting a task and starting another has long been known by factory managers, who seek to minimize the number of “changeovers” on the assembly lines (a changeover being when you stop running the line to start up production of a new or slightly different product). The task-switching and startup time to get the line running at its previous high speed greatly dampens productivity.

The key is to accept the fundamental fact that the mind can only do one thing at a time.

And ditch the device when you’re trying to be in the moment; it’s often the primary co-conspirator in our multitasking offenses.

Certainly, this is easier said than done, particularly since brain research indicates that our addiction to texts, Twitter, and Google has a physiological cause–the body’s emission of the chemical dopamine (known as the “pleasure seeking molecule”). Our brain gets pleasure when we seek and find new information, so it chemically encourages more such behavior (enter dopamine).

To break this stimulation, experts say turn off the audio and visual cues built into your devices that alert you to the presence of more information.

But mostly, just draw a line in the mental sandbox and commit to one thing at a time.

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