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Where Multitasking Fails and Why

Let's take a look into why multitasking falls short of expectations and shouldn’t be our last resort in getting things done

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24 Jul '23
5 min read


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You are on a call with a friend who seeks your advice. Suddenly a work mail pops up. As the friend breaks down her story you attempt the same with your mail till she throws the question, ‘So how should I go about this?’ 

You are caught off guard. You are trying to retrace the conversation but your mind is still buzzing like a bee around that mail. You are in two minds to ask him/her/they to set the context again. But you also want to look over the mail and sort it out. 

Sketchy situation. What do you do?

This is one of the instances that demonstrates that multitasking can often lead to missing information and marginal accomplishment. Don’t believe us? Studies indicate that it takes around 15 minutes to refocus on a primary task after a distraction like an email, resulting in a potential 40% drop in efficiency.

Multitasking demands extra time to mentally shift gear when switching between tasks leading to lesser efficiency, as pointed out by the authors of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 

study from the University of California revealed that heavy media multitasking leads to increased stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression compared to single-tasking.  (Why aren’t we surprised?) The constant need to switch attention and divide focus contributes to chronic stress and negatively impacts mental well-being.

You get the gist. 

On the other hand, multitasking seems to come to us more naturally when it involves simple actions like watching a show while eating or cooking, or listening to a podcast while doing dishes. 

The reason is easy. 

Performing simple tasks puts less strain on the brain's prefrontal cortex, making it easier to switch between tasks.

But in today's fast-paced world, multitasking is still regarded as an efficient approach to time management and productivity enhancement in the workplace. However, as pointed above, scientific studies have proved otherwise. 

In this blog, we dive into why multitasking falls short of expectations and shouldn’t be our last resort in getting things done

Cognitive hiccups

Multitasking strains our brain's ability to process information and perform tasks simultaneously. When our attention is diverted, a lingering ‘residue’ remains in the brain, impairing our cognitive performance when we switch to a new task. As a result, the current task at hand suffers. This leads to reduced efficiency and increased errors in both tasks. 

Don't be surprised when Stanford researchers tell you a frequent multitasker has more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and switching tasks effectively. 

Losing focus and quality slipping 

When we divide our focus among multiple tasks, we end up giving each task less of our mental effort and concentration. This leads to superficial completion and quality suffers. 

Over the course of a decade, extensive research has consistently demonstrated that individuals who engage in frequent multitasking with multiple types of media notably perform poorer on simple memory tasks. There is evidently a negative correlation between media multitasking and memory performance. High levels of media multitasking have been found to be associated with poorer performance on cognitive memory tasks. So juggling various media simultaneously may not be the best recipe for a sharp memory. 

Deep focus and sustained attention can produce top-notch work, which can only be achieved through single-tasking.

Stress overload and mental exhaustion 

As discussed in the beginning, multitasking places a significant cognitive load on our brains, causing increased stress levels and mental fatigue. In simpler terms, when we try to multitask, we are just switching between multiple activities. This only drains our energy. 

According to neuroscientists, it depletes the brain's supply of oxygenated glucose, which is the same fuel needed to maintain focus on a task. 

It triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, leading to a state of chronic stress. Moreover, multitasking stores new information in the wrong part of the brain. It compromises your short-term memory.

So individuals who engage in multitasking often experience heightened levels of anxiety, decreased job satisfaction, and a decline in overall well-being.

Loss of efficiency and time

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking does not save time; rather, it loses it. The constant shifting between complex tasks increases the likelihood of more errors, calling for additional time and effort to rectify them. Thus, multitasking may appear efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end as it involves reorienting our focus and fixing errors. 

Let’s break it down further. 

It takes extra time for the brain to shift mental gears every time we switch between tasks. Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D. has introduced cognitive control models. One model, called goal shifting, involves actively deciding to change tasks. It requires the brain to deactivate the cognitive rules of the previous task and activate new rules for the next. 

For instance, in the workplace, when a worker transitions from completing financial Excel sheets to writing emails, the brain needs to shift goals and switch attention. This additional time required for the brain to fully switch cognitive rules contributes to workplace inefficiency.

By focusing on a single task at a time, we can allocate our time more effectively, complete tasks with greater efficiency, and reduce the need for rework.

End of the day, the allure of multitasking may be tempting, but the reality is far from true. No published paper has found a significant positive connection between working memory capacity and multitasking. Our cognitive limitations, reduced focus, increased stress levels, and loss of efficiency all contribute to the downfall of multitasking.

So, instead of falling for the multitasking myth, let's look at strengthening our focused attention to unlock greater efficiency and fulfilled productivity.

We might surprise ourselves. 

Category : Productivity


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Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, daydreamer, procrastinator