Why multitasking is a myth, backed by science

When I was 19 years old, I used to keep myself busy for about 15 hours a day. I woke up at 5 AM for rowing practice, went to class, studied, worked two jobs, and made time for recreational activities. Through all of this, I always found myself trying to complete multiple tasks at once to remain “productive”. I figured this was the best way to get things done and would pay dividends in the long run. As I’ve gotten older, it has become increasingly evident that I was wrong.

While the urge to multitask is alluring, there is evidence supporting its ineffectiveness and negative impact on our mental state.

In reality, we are never truly multitasking. While it may feel like you are successfully completing two or three objectives at once, it is far more likely that that the brain is processing individual actions in rapid succession.

Like the pictures in a flip book, our focus is discrete. It is only with time and motion that our fluttering attention gains the illusion of multitasking.

That start-stop process actually costs us time and efficiency, leaves us more prone to making mistakes, and can be incredibly exhausting when repeated.

How often do you see one of the following scenarios?

  • Writing an email while walking down the street
  • Texting while driving
  • Reading a book while listening to music
  • Talking to someone while working out
  • Scrolling through Facebook while in class

These activities aren’t irregular; they are the norm. But constantly bombarding your brain with multiple streams of information at once isn’t good.

It’s time to re-think how we think.

“Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.”- Steve Jobs

The Scientific Problem With Multi-tasking

“Multitasking is like constantly pulling up a plant. This kind of constant shifting of your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to take root and flourish.”- Barbara Oakley

Our brains weren’t built to multitask. We are wired to be monotaskers.

The problem is that multitasking is often praised as a necessary skill to succeed in the 21st century, and our device-laden world is encouraging it in everything we do. With device in hand anything is possible, right?

Wrong.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained the implications:

“I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

The growing tendency to work on multiple things at once has become incredibly prevalent in the workplace. At any given time we might be working on a project, listening to music, answering an employee question, checking a calendar invite, glancing back and forth between three different monitors, and feeling the buzz of a smartphone notification in the span of a few seconds.

This isn’t “multitasking”; it is a fruitless effort to remain busy and check items off a never ending list.

According to Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, dividing attention across multiple activities is taxing on the brain, and can often come at the expense of real productivity.

In fact, one study found that just 2.5% of people are capable of multitasking effectively.

When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing — quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work- Michael Harris

Adopting More Effective Habits

“Inevitably we find ourselves tackling too many things at the same time, spreading our focus so thin that nothing gets the attention it deserves. This is commonly referred to as “being busy.” Being busy, however, is not the same thing as being productive.”- Ryder Carroll

As a junior at DePaul University, I took an Entrepreneurship and Meditation class. Initially meant to be more of a filler course between my rigorous core schedule, it ended up have a deeply profound impact on how I viewed focus.

Our teacher had us perform walking meditations, something I initially believed to be impossible. It had become natural for me to listen to music, text, or run through last minute notes while walking to the train for class. What I learned was that through repeated practice and effort, it was possible to clear your mind and meditate in high-distraction zones (like the Chicago CTA station).

You have to learn that distractions will always exist, and probably worsen as we continue advancing into the future. This is why it is pivotal that we adopt high-level strategies to mitigate the urge to multitask.

It may be as simple as writing everything down for the day in a journal. Dr. Matt Rice, physical therapist and owner of Dynami Movement has a daily Instagram thread where he showcases a simple journal consisting of drinking a glass of water and going through various breathing techniques. This idea is reinforced by author Ryder Carroll who popularized the Bullet Journal, a high-level way of organizing your day and thoughts into a single stream of functionality to declutter your mind.

The Atlantic recommends trying “Tabless Thursdays”, to intensely single-task and avoid multiple tabs in your browser. One tab, one task, one day a week. You can even go as granular as setting a time limit for each assignment and training yourself to follow the limitations.

This will help you focus on one thing at a time instead of letting the insurmountable stress of tasks build up until they are overwhelming.

In Conclusion

Mono-tasking, single-tasking, whatever your keyword is doesn’t matter. The key is understanding that multitasking is an ineffective and potentially dangerous obsession.

Understand that changing your habits and becoming productive won’t happen opportunity. Like everything, it requires some effort. But if you take the time to learn what works best for you, and adopt a series of actionable strategies to optimize your energy and time, I can guarantee you that it will be a step in the direction towards a less anxious and happier life.

What are your thoughts on multitasking and its growing presence in the modern world?

This article first appeared on Medium.