HP TECH TAKES /...

Exploring today's technology for tomorrow's possibilities
Does Multitasking Really Work?

Does Multitasking Really Work?

Tom Gerencer
|
Multitasking brings the promise of increased productivity, but it’s usually an empty promise. When you try to do too many tasks at once, it tends to overload your executive function, making you less efficient in all of your tasks at hand. But in some isolated cases it works.
Let’s take a peek at the science behind multitasking to find out when you should multitask and when to focus on one thing at a time. We’ll also unlock five key techniques used by highly productive people to get the most out of your precious time. And we’ll take a look at several strategies you can use instead of multitasking.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is doing multiple tasks at once, much as the name implies. The word comes from the computer science world, where computers are often said to do more than one task at once.
Many people claim to get more done when they double down on more than one to-do item. Some multitaskers keep to simple simultaneous jobs like organizing paperwork while listening to podcasts, or taking notes during a meeting. Others may try to finish multiple complicated work tasks from disparate projects simultaneously like crafting an email while attending a Zoom meeting.

Is multitasking possible?

First the bad news: multitasking doesn’t work according to research from the American Psychological Association, which shows that people actually get less done when they multitask. In several studies, multitaskers took longer to complete the same set of tasks than those who focused on one thing at a time, accomplishing each in order. The experimenters in the studies gave people a list of tasks, then let some people multitask.
In short, the human brain isn’t built with complex multitasking in mind. Not only is it impossible to get more done by doing several things at once; you’ll actually accomplish less. When measured for how long it took to do all the tasks on the list, the multitaskers didn’t get better at doubling down on tasks, even after a period of practice.

Why multitasking hurts your productivity and more

Multitasking’s constant switching saps your productivity and makes you get less done in the same amount of time, but that’s not all it does. It has a negative impact on your attention, mindfulness, and learning, too.

Increased mistakes

The difference between mindfulness and attention may seem slim, but it’s important. Our attention suffers when we multitask, causing more mistakes and poorer performance. But our mindfulness suffers too, and that’s the function that gives us a relaxed, creative, and inspired approach to daily challenges.

Lower learning ability

Finally, you won’t improve as much from day-to-day with multitasking. That’s because doing too much at once erodes our ability to learn. Tuning out the world and zeroing in on just one thing is where the mental rubber meets the road.

Why multitasking doesn’t work

The problem with multitasking is in something called “executive function.” That’s the part of your brain that lets you focus and switch tasks.
Each time you switch from task to task, you are accessing some of your executive function capabilities. It takes time to get back to maximum capacity. It also takes time to turn off the inner “rules” for one type of task, and turn on the rules for another.
It’s kind of like getting out a set of tools to do one job, then putting them away again to do another job. When you multitask, you spend too much time getting those “tools” out and putting them away over and over, sapping your efficiency.

The reason multitasking skills are valuable

Asking, “Can a person truly multitask?” or “Is it possible for humans to multitask?” is different than asking, “Can some multitasking skills be valuable?” The real question is, is multitasking effective? While the practice of multitasking has been proven as the less efficient of two work strategies, multitasking skills are vital.
Multitasking skills are your brain's ability to process more than one job at a time. For instance, you may be very good at talking on the phone while editing a document, or that task may be impossible for you.
If you have strong multitasking skills, you’re better at fighting distractions. The problem begins when we overuse those skills, inviting too many distractions in because we believe we “can handle it.”
To sharpen these all-important skills, prioritize your goals and tasks, avoid distraction, and make good use of calendars and lists. Then use your multitasking skills for those times you really need them, like when your child needs help with a school Zoom sign in while you're in the middle of a conference call with a client.

Why do people multitask?

Multitasking became a household word in the ‘80s when it moved out of the computer engineering world and into the business lexicon. For a time, CEOs, managers, and front-line employees alike adopted it as the new watchword for productivity.
When research caught up with the buzz, the promise lost its punch but many of us may continue to multitask because it feels good. When we double up on jobs, the accompanying “busy feeling” can make us feel like we’re getting more done. Unfortunately, the managers who look the busiest are often, in reality, wasting the most time.

When does multitasking work?

So is multitasking always bad? No. It can actually work well with certain low-level tasks. For instance, University of California neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley told Fast Company that cleaning your house while learning from an audiobook is a good way to multitask.
You may clean more slowly or make more mistakes like grabbing the wrong bottle of cleaner then having to retrace your steps. But they won’t be end-of-world level mistakes and you’re carving out more time for learning.
Multitasking also works when it motivates you to do something good. Listening to music while you exercise or turning sedentary meetings into walking meetings are both great ways to double-up. If you’re stuck in a creative dead end, switching to a different task may help you get unstuck and open your mind up to new ideas. You may get past a roadblock when you come back with fresh eyes.

How to boost efficiency without multitasking

If the goal is increased productivity, and multitasking doesn’t get us there, what does? There are a few simple, research-backed answers that can send your efficiency through the roof. Take a look at the five strategies productive people use to get more done.

1. Focus on your passion

Time management isn’t actually about managing time. It’s about managing passion. That’s according to research by New York Times best-selling author Kevin Kruse on hundreds of billionaires, Olympic athletes, and straight-A students. When you’re passionate about your goals, it’s more fun to spend your time on them than on procrastination.
To build your passion, keep your list of goals and tasks as small as possible. That’s why billionaire investor Warren Buffett puts everything that doesn’t serve his current five goals on an “avoid at all costs” list. Then, say “no” to more. Saying “no” to the extras will keep you focused and passionate, and that builds productivity.

2. Work in shorter blocks of time

One of the best non-multitasking productivity hacks is knowing when to quit. As you work for a longer stretch of time, your brain gets tired just like the rest of you. The lab-coat explanation is that you run out of dopamine and have trouble staying on task. In plain English, when you work too long at a stretch, your brain gets exhausted and your productivity takes a hit.
So, work in short bursts of 25 minutes, 90 minutes, or at most two hours. While the science doesn’t give a clear answer on which of those is best, there’s general consensus that 2-hour blocks are a good max figure. You’ll stay more focused and get more done, as any advocate of the Pomodoro technique will tell you.

3. Take smarter breaks

Along with working in short blocks comes taking breaks. However, taking breaks is easier said than done. When you’re up against that deadline, finishing “just one more task” can seem like a good idea. But when you’ve been at it for four hours straight, you’re most likely wasting time and being less productive.
You’ll avoid the worst multitasking pitfalls by getting serious about your breaks. While everyone unwinds in different ways, science shows that exercise and meditation are among the best ways to spend 15 to 20 minutes off the clock. That’s because they both chemically reset your brain and make it easier to focus when you get back to the grindstone.

4. Track your time

Keeping a spreadsheet of what you did in every half-hour seems like another time-wasting chore. But as management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Drucker went a step further and said the only way to get control of time is to track it.
Keeping a spreadsheet of how you spent each half-hour block of your day isn’t just a good idea; it creates magical results. After a week or two, you’ll gain deep insights into how you spend your time. The light bulb will switch on as you discover ways you’re using hours and minutes that don’t contribute to your most important duties. You’ll almost effortlessly start to gravitate toward value-added tasks. Apps can make you more productive too. See our guide for details on 6 must-have productivity apps.

5. Delegate with more purpose

Once you know where your time goes, it’s time to do something about it. Instead of multitasking more in an attempt to get more done, zero in on non-value-added time drains and delegate them. Whenever your time-tracking spreadsheet from Step #4 above surfaces a golden nugget, spend it by reassigning those minor, necessary, but time-sucking tasks.
If you have employees, it’s easy to know where to send those lesser tasks. If not, consider hiring a part-time virtual assistant (VA) for a few hours per week to clean them up.
You can even automate those tasks with time-saving software or eliminate them altogether. For example, you may be able to use conditional formatting to replace a regular check on spreadsheet figures.

Summary

Multitasking doesn’t work. Several studies show that multitaskers spend too much brain power on task-switching, which means they take longer to complete the same tasks as non-multitaskers. But while focus and concentration are still the best paths to productivity, multitasking skills are vital for seeing us through situations where doing two things at once is unavoidable.
By ramping up your work passion, working in short blocks, taking smart breaks, and tracking your time, you can increase your efficiency and get things done like never before, without relying on the myth of multitasking.
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech@Work. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.

Disclosure: Our site may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.

Disclaimer

Prices, specifications, availability and terms of offers may change without notice. Price protection, price matching or price guarantees do not apply to Intra-day, Daily Deals or limited-time promotions. Quantity limits may apply to orders, including orders for discounted and promotional items. Despite our best efforts, a small number of items may contain pricing, typography, or photography errors. Correct prices and promotions are validated at the time your order is placed. These terms apply only to products sold by HP.com; reseller offers may vary. Items sold by HP.com are not for immediate resale. Orders that do not comply with HP.com terms, conditions, and limitations may be cancelled. Contract and volume customers not eligible.

HP’s MSRP is subject to discount. HP’s MSRP price is shown as either a stand-alone price or as a strike-through price with a discounted or promotional price also listed. Discounted or promotional pricing is indicated by the presence of an additional higher MSRP strike-through price

The following applies to HP systems with Intel 6th Gen and other future-generation processors on systems shipping with Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 Pro systems downgraded to Windows 7 Professional, Windows 8 Pro, or Windows 8.1: This version of Windows running with the processor or chipsets used in this system has limited support from Microsoft. For more information about Microsoft’s support, please see Microsoft’s Support Lifecycle FAQ at https://support.microsoft.com/lifecycle

Ultrabook, Celeron, Celeron Inside, Core Inside, Intel, Intel Logo, Intel Atom, Intel Atom Inside, Intel Core, Intel Inside, Intel Inside Logo, Intel vPro, Itanium, Itanium Inside, Pentium, Pentium Inside, vPro Inside, Xeon, Xeon Phi, Xeon Inside, and Intel Optane are trademarks of Intel Corporation or its subsidiaries in the U.S. and/or other countries.

In-home warranty is available only on select customizable HP desktop PCs. Need for in-home service is determined by HP support representative. Customer may be required to run system self-test programs or correct reported faults by following advice given over phone. On-site services provided only if issue can't be corrected remotely. Service not available holidays and weekends.

HP will transfer your name and address information, IP address, products ordered and associated costs and other personal information related to processing your application to Bill Me Later®. Bill Me Later will use that data under its privacy policy.

Microsoft Windows 10: Not all features are available in all editions or versions of Windows 10. Systems may require upgraded and/or separately purchased hardware, drivers, software or BIOS update to take full advantage of Windows 10 functionality. Windows 10 is automatically updated, which is always enabled. ISP fees may apply and additional requirements may apply over time for updates. See http://www.microsoft.com.

HP Rewards qualifying and eligible products/purchases are defined as those from the following categories: Printers, Business PCs (Elite, Pro and Workstation brands), select Business Accessories and select Ink, Toner & Paper.