We’ve been fed a falsehood, told a lie, because we’ve been told multitasking is a thing. It’s not. Our brains don’t work like that. We don’t process higher function tasks simultaneously. We task switch. And task switching is not only counterproductive; there are times it’s dangerous such as texting and driving. Multitasking is killing your productivity, and it could kill you.

Driving with Your Eyes Closed

“Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.” — NHTSA.

“In one of the starkest reminders to date of the dangers of texting, while driving, the late celebrity plastic surgeon Dr. Frank Ryan was reportedly tweeting about his dog just before his car plunged off a cliff in Malibu.” – MTV News  He texted himself off a cliff.

Distracted driving accounts for thousands of traffic accidents every year. Most states have passed laws outlawing texting while driving. It’s clear that multitasking while driving doesn’t work, but why do so many of us believe we can multitask at work?

Multitasking Doesn’t Work at Work. Multitasking is Killing Your Productivity

I was conducting a leadership class with several younger managers. We were discussing time management when one of the members of the team said she knew she should be better at multitasking, but she wasn’t very good at it. That’s part of the problem. For more than 30 years we’ve been sold the myth of multitasking to the point that people think less of themselves because they’re not good at. Here’s the myth-busting truth. No. One. Is good at multitasking. And you shouldn’t be expected to be a good multitasker. The term multitasking originated in 1966. “The first citation of the word is from 1966, in a magazine called Datamation: Multitasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.” Multitasking originated in the computer realm. It’s a computer term. The human brain isn’t a computer.

Losing Your Place

We aren’t wired to multitask. At best, we task switch jumping back and forth between tasks. How efficient is that? Think about this, when you’re reading something and get pulled away what happens when you go back to the book or article you were reading? “Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain. That start/stop/start process is rough on us: rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small microseconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.” —  Psychology Today — The Myth of Multitasking

“Some compelling research by the American Psychological Association shows that what you think is multitasking is ineffective and inefficient. According to studies, as you switch from one task to another (red light/green light), the transition is not a smooth one. There’s a lag time while your brain shifts attention from one task to another. And while it feels like this shift is seamless, it actually takes time. How much time? Research has shown that multitasking takes as much as 40 percent more time than focusing on one task at a time — more for complex tasks.” — Entrepreneur — Why Multitasking Is a Myth That’s Breaking Your Brain and Wasting Your Time

How Rude is that?

I don’t want too get to far away from the topic, because  multitasking is killing your productivity, but task switching when you’re face-to-face with another is rude. Let alone it’s nearly impossible to communicate effectively when you’re checking your phone, looking at the big screen, and listening to music.

“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.” — Inc.com — Psychology and Neuroscience Blow-Up the Myth of Effective Multitasking

Dumbing Down

There have been several studies about the effect of task switching on intelligence and guess what – attempting to multitask multiplies your stupidity.

“A study done for Hewlett-Packard found that multitasking led to an apparent IQ drop of about 15 points. This is equivalent to an adult’s IQ score dropping to the level of an 8-year-old, and similar to what you’d find if the adult had stayed up all night or been smoking marijuana.” — Does Multitasking Lower Your IQ? [Stanford Study]

The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenberger cites in her article, Performing multiple tasks makes you stupid, “A growing body of scientific research shows one of jugglers’ favorite time-saving techniques, multitasking, can actually make you less efficient and, well, stupider. Trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession can take longer overall than doing them one at a time and may leave you with reduced brainpower to perform each task.”

Just Say No

So, I got it. You’re semi-convinced multitasking isn’t very efficient. Maybe multitasking is killing your productivity. However, your job, boss, or work culture expect you to multitask. So, what can you do?

  • Show your boss how tackling one task at a time adds to your productivity. Time it. Prove it.
  • Do your best not to switch tasks until the first task is complete. Larger tasks might need to be segmented.
  • If you’re asked to switch tasks show the person what you’re working on, how much time you need to complete it, and what you’ll need to do if you stop at this point.
  • If you must switch tasks mark your place. What I mean by mark your place is to make a note of where you left off.
  • Send this post to your boss
  • Read all the links in this post

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

Does your business have a  management training plan? Many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash