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The Truth About Multitasking

What happens when we bite off more than our brains can chew


Can you tap on your head and rub your belly? I bet you can.

Can you jump on one foot while singing the ABCs? Probably yes.

Can you solve a math problem while writing an essay? That’s challenging, and I doubt you can do it. Not because I underestimate your abilities, or think you are incapable of doing both assignments. You probably can solve a math problem and then write an essay, but you cannot do it simultaneously — or as most people call it, “multitask”.

Why? Because you are only one person with only one brain. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible.

When talking about multitasking experts refers to two terms switchtasking and background tasking.

What’s the difference?

Switchtasking (or multitasking) is attempting to do multiple attention-requiring tasks at the same time. Each switch in attention incurs switching cost, which includes a loss of time, decrease in performance, and an increase in stress levels.

For example, solve the math problem and write the essay together at the same time will get your brain to switch between assignments loosing time and attention on each switch. When most people say they are “multitasking,” they are most often referring to switchtasking.

Background tasking is performing a task while something mindless or mundane occurs in the background. For examples: doing homework while listening to music, or jumping on one foot while singing the ABCs. It is known that background tasking can improve productivity overall.

Let’s try a small experiment:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:

On the first line, write:

Multitask or switchtask

On the second line: write out the numbers 1–22 sequentially, like those below:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask.

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line.

In other words, you write the letter “M” and then the number “1” and then the letter “u” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

M u…..

1 2…..

I’ll bet you your time is double or more what it was on the first round. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number.


Multitasking is neither a good thing nor a bad thing… as you could see, it simply does not exist! The question is, are you background tasking, which may improve productivity, or are you switchtasking, which always harms productivity.

Dr Marin Kutcher author of Digital Kids: How to Balance Screen Time, and Why it Matters says, “…You can’t type a text into your smartphone and read a school book at the same time! Every time we get interrupted, we not only lose time while we attend to the interruption (answering the text or posting on Facebook), but research shows that it actually takes anywhere from one to twenty additional minutes just to get back to where you were when interrupt”. Adding that “we all need to learn that ‘multitasking’ actually makes the work go less efficiently and ultimately leaves us LESS free time, not more.”

To be more productive in our lives we should consider minimizing switchtasking. Some tips for that are:

Focus on one task at a time. This includes assignment or when speaking with another person. When you switchtask while dealing with an electronic device, you simply lose efficiency. But if you switchtask on a human being, you additionally damage a relationship. Be present, listen carefully, make eye contact, and keep your device off the table when speaking to that person.

Switch sound notifications to OFF. Your cell phone ringer (even on vibrate) doesn’t need to be on all the time. This will prevent your brain to paying attention to the distracting task, and keeps you focus on the one task in hand.

Tali Orad, Founder & CEO of Screen / Founder of B.E.CPR, Inc

Entrepreneur and engineer, but most importantly, a mom to a son and two daughters, little angels that were spending way too much time on their electronic devices. That’s what inspired Tali to create Screen and reconnect with her family.

Originally published at medium.com

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