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Why Multitasking is a Fool’s Errand

why multitasking is a fools errand

If a doctor was performing an operating procedure on you or a loved one, you wouldn’t want them checking their email or looking at their phone during the surgery. You certainly wouldn’t want to hear them say that they perform surgery better while simultaneously reading their email or watching television. You would demand their utmost attention. We shouldn’t treat business any differently.  

How many times have you sent someone a text or Slack message, and they replied back immediately, but when you call them, they don’t answer and say, “sorry, I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you later”? For those of you who actually call people on the phone, how many times has this happened to you? If they’re so preoccupied with their meeting, how are they able to text back with immediacy? This is a symptom of our current culture and environment—we live in a time where we are always accessible, even when we shouldn’t be. 

Multitasking is a fool’s errand, and people simply shouldn’t engage. The more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish. Many of us are checking our emails or Slack messages during meetings only to realize we haven’t retained any information from the meeting. Some claim that they can successfully operate this way, but science would suggest otherwise. Leading researchers from around the world have said it time and time again—multitasking simply is not effective, and for most, it isn’t even possible. I’ll be addressing this in a three-part series that will include some helpful tips to avoid multitasking and how neurodivergence may come into play. 

“Working Memory” and the Science Behind Multitasking 

We’ve established that multitasking hinders your performance, but what exactly is going on at a scientific level when you toggle from thing to thing throughout your workday? 

When you think you’re doing more than one task at the same time, what’s really happening is “task-switching”. Studies show that “task-switching” (switching back and forth between subjects or tasks, especially when they are complex and require more attention) makes us less effective and efficient and more likely to make mistakes. Executive control of cognitive processes is diminished by consistent context-switching, and even though some boast at how well they can work on multiple tasks at the same time, it is proven to be a less effective method of working. One study (of many) found that college students who tried to consistently multitask actually had lower grades and poorer academic performance than those who didn’t. 

Studies also indicate that it takes more time to get things done if you’re switching between multiple tasks versus focusing on one thing at a time. When this happens, you’re also more likely to make mistakes, and the more complex each task is, the higher the amount of errors. Some estimate that constant task-switching can cost you a shocking 40% of your productivity

Still not convinced? Let’s break it down anatomically. Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the anterior cingulate gyrus, and the pre-motor cortex. Their responsibilities are as follows: the pre-frontal cortex helps you shift and focus your attention; the posterior parietal lobe analyzes the rules and requirements of each task; the anterior cingulate gyrus looks out for mistakes, and the pre-motor cortex is anticipating what comes next. It is proven that rapidly switching between these different parts of the brain hinders performance, and as we age, it gets even worse. Some even say that multitasking damages your brain over time.

It isn’t just that multitasking prevents you from completing tasks while you’re doing them—it hinders your cognitive ability to store information long-term. Multitasking requires a lot of “working memory”, or temporary brain storage, and it doesn’t give your brain the time and space to develop memories, which hinders your ability to truly synthesize new information. Overall, multitaskers have poor attention spans and difficulty remembering key facts. This working memory is vital to running and operating a successful business or just retaining pertinent information throughout your day. 

What Constitutes Multi-Tasking?

You might be surprised at what is considered multi-tasking: it isn’t just trying to answer emails while in a meeting for another client. Even listening to music while doing certain tasks can lessen your focus (especially music with words). More studies suggest that people who frequently “media multitask” (like listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie) are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task. Music has a negative impact on the aforementioned “working memory” and lowers reading comprehension. If you insist on listening to music while you work, stick to instrumental or classical genres, which have less of a negative impact. By the way, if you have ADD or ADHD, this might not apply to you, but I’ll address this in a subsequent post.

By now, the evidence is overwhelming: multitasking simply does not work. We live in a society that demands much of our attention, and understandably, leaders feel the pressure to get as much done as possible during the workday. But the best way to go about our work is to focus on one thing at a time. It not only increases effectiveness but indicates a level of respect for the task at hand or people we are meeting with. Look out for part two or this three-part blog series for tips and tricks on how to break the habit of multitasking.   

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