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
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
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.
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.
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.