Some people wear their ability to “hustle” and multitask as a badge of honor. It’s hardly surprising. Plenty of job descriptions list the ability to “manage multiple priorities and projects” as a critical skill.
But is multitasking really a good thing? Research the science, and you’ll quickly discover that plenty of eminent figures think not. In fact, many scientists believe there’s no such thing as true multitasking. All we’re doing is flicking between different tasks, often rather ineffectively.
However, the reality is that we live in a fast-paced age of constantly beeping notifications and multiple browser tabs. Most of us have no choice but to multitask – at least some of the time.
In this article, we explore whether multitasking is simply a necessary evil or whether there’s more to it than that.
- Examine the science around multitasking.
- Discuss some of its harmful effects.
- Look at how you can improve your life and workflow by understanding how multitasking actually works (and doesn’t work!)
Before we begin, let’s consider a crucial point:
Not All Multitasking is Equal
Multitasking is often far less efficient than it appears on the surface. We’ll explore that in detail in a moment. However, there are plenty of examples of where we multitask with no problem at all.
Consider household tasks. Loading the dishwasher while listening to music isn’t something we struggle with, nor is catching up on the ironing at the same time as watching the news.
There are also routine tasks, such as driving a car or riding a bike, where there’s plenty of “multitasking” going on. There are pedals, gears, and all manner of buttons and switches, while we deal with all of those without forgetting to steer.
On the other hand, in a work environment, it’s easy to see when we’re let down by failed attempts to multitask.
Most of us have tried to clear down our email or check social media while we’re on a Zoom call. This may seem to work at first. However, it quickly unravels when we realize the other participants are waiting for a reply to a question and we’ve not been listening for several minutes!
There’s a significant difference between deep work and shallow work. In the case of the latter, multitasking can prove feasible and practical. Filing emails and doing basic admin tasks is easy while catching up on the news or listening to Spotify. But try writing an article or putting a complex project plan together, and you’ll likely find you struggle until you hit the “mute” button.
Humans are not computers. We can’t buy an upgrade that allows us to do more things at once. Indeed, computers are growing more powerful and are increasingly capable of multitasking. That’s why we see more and more “shallow work” being done using AI and automation.
Yet we are stuck with what we’ve got. As such, the best thing we can do is learn to work as well as we can with it. The key to that is freeing ourselves up for the kind of “deep work” that can’t be automated.
The Effects of Heavy Duty Multitasking
There’s bad news for those of us who consider ourselves masters of juggling tasks. Multiple studies on this subject reveal two things:
- We’re likely not as great at multitasking as we think.
- Multitasking is not that good for us.
Let’s look at this in some detail.
One myth it’s crucial to dispel is that we are ever truly doing two things at once. Multitasking is, essentially, merely switching between those tasks – albeit incredibly quickly sometimes.
In the 1990s, Robert Rogers (Ph.D.) and Stephen Monsell (D.Phil) researched this phenomenon. They discovered a clear “switch cost.” This means that people work more slowly when switching between tasks, even if those tasks are relatively simple and repetitive.
In 2003, Monsell revisited the subject with Nick Yeung (Ph.D.). Their study showed that this cost is compounded by other issues too. These include the brain having to work out when to switch between tasks, and also the need to remember where you’d got to with one task before switching to the other.
Anybody who’s been interrupted in the middle of some work – by a phone call, or perhaps an inquisitive child while home working – will know the truth of this. Getting back “into the flow” can be difficult.
While these “switch cost” times are generally small in isolation, they all add up. Scientist David Meyer (Ph.D.) states that they can reduce productivity by up to 40%.
On Quality of Work
Multitasking doesn’t just hit productivity. It can impact the quality of your work too.
We’ve all been in those situations where one additional thing happens that causes us to lose all concentration due to a run of message notifications, emails, or unexpected calls. Whatever it is, you simply reach the point where you have no more bandwidth. You get confused.
There’s lots of biology going on when this happens. Cortisol, often known as “the stress hormone” begins to flood the body, often with some adrenaline too, as the “flight or fight” response kicks in. This isn’t great for your mental health (as we’ll cover in the next point), but it’s also bad for your quality of work.
A study by professor Glenn Wilson revealed that something as simple as having a new unread email in your inbox can reduce your useful IQ by up to 10 points.
With that in mind, consider the impact of constantly trying to juggle many different tasks. It suddenly seems very worthwhile to take a look at your notification settings!
On Mental Health
When it comes to the mental health impact of multitasking, cortisol is a factor once again. Clearly, an excess of a stress hormone isn’t a good thing. Nor is the basic fact that continual task-shifting burns a lot of energy, specifically glucose. This can quickly leave us feeling “exhausted and disoriented.”
Perhaps the most worrying fact is that these impacts don’t only affect us while we are multitasking. Long-term effects can range from increased “distractibility” to impaired memory and even a loss of brain mass. Scary stuff.
One final ironic twist is that we’re hard-wired to behave in a way that makes us our own worst enemy when we’re working – especially with modern tech. It’s well established that completing small “tasks” – from checking an email to refreshing our social media feeds – triggers a release of dopamine. It’s a genuinely addictive way to behave – even if it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re working that productively or effectively.
Multitasking Isn’t ALWAYS Evil
Based on the above sections, you’d be forgiven for thinking that multitasking is something to avoid at all costs.
We’ve already established that it’s practically unavoidable in the modern world. Furthermore, it’s not always a bad thing. Some experts, such as Art Markman (Ph.D.), a professor of psychology, acknowledge that there are elements of multitasking we adapt to be great at.
Habits are significant here, which takes us back to some examples from the beginning: things like driving a car or listening to the news while doing housework. Markman uses touch-typing as an example too. This becomes so natural, with experience, that you can easily do it at the same time as concentrating on something else.
Tasks like this don’t involve much use of what Markman calls your “working memory.” This is finite – as you quickly discover if you try to hold a conversation at the same time as doing the ironing and watching the news!
The key is to learn which things you can genuinely do at the same time as others. You can then create undisturbed space for deeper work – the work that needs and deserves your undivided attention.
How to Cope with the Downsides of Multitasking
Now you understand the intricacies (and science) of multitasking, let’s consider how to make good use of that knowledge.
Here are some ideas:
Change your Workflows
The crucial thing to realize is that you don’t have to juggle tasks all day.
It may make you look busy – and feel busy – but we’ve established that it’s very unlikely that you’re working at your best.
As such, the starting point is to think about how you work and how you plan your days. Do a little soul-searching around where time is being wasted and where you could do with having more focus.
Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions
As discussed, small dopamine hits make us all susceptible to constant distraction. This is great news for social media sites and their advertising revenue, but it’s not so good for people trying to work to their full ability.
If you’re honest with yourself, it’s probably easy to eliminate MANY of the factors that cause you to flit from one thing to the other. There’s no shame in this admission. Surveys show that many people struggle with distraction. Widespread home and remote working compound things even further, with 47% of remote workers citing issues with “in-home distractions.”
So, with that in mind, do you need to see every Instagram “like?” Does the background music really help you work? Do you have to empty the dishwasher now? Does your email client need to fetch new messages every minute, or would every hour be quite sufficient?
Given that every task switch has that “switch cost,” you can begin to improve things by simply being honest with yourself about which tasks are unnecessary.
Some of this is down to self-discipline. You can also remove a lot of temptation by doing some technical housekeeping, and stopping so many things “pinging” for your attention.
Schedule Time Blocks for Uninterrupted Work
We’ve mentioned “deep work” a couple of times. It’s the kind of work that allows you to get into a state of flow. It’s also the kind of work that can prove thoroughly enjoyable if you’re able to do it without being disturbed.
As such, you need to carve out time for this kind of work, the time when you close your email and messaging apps and maybe even switch your smartphone off.
If you’re leading a team, it’s also important to encourage others to do this. Once again, looking busy and feeling busy rarely correlates to doing our best work.
Once your staff is assured that how busy they seem isn’t how they’re judged, they’re free to do the deep work more effectively. This means your people should know that it’s OK to set aside time where their key performance metric isn’t how quickly they respond to emails and Slack messages!
A workflow management system can help with this. It’s also important to remember there is a big company culture element in play too.
Plan Time for Multitasking
There is a flipside to the multitasking coin, which is the fact that there are tasks we are better at juggling.
As such, just as you can set aside time for the deep work, you can set aside multitasking time too. This can be the time when you do scan through your inbox, delete the junk mail, do basic admin tasks, and “clear the decks” for the more complicated work.
One important point, however, is not to waste the most productive moments of the day on this.
An example: many people are most alert in the morning, but spend that time on the “busy work.” One idea would be to experiment with working on more complex tasks then instead. To “eat the frog” early on, as the saying goes.
This inevitably varies from person to person, but it’s worth thinking about whether you are making the most of your “peak hours” or squandering them on basic admin.
Breaks are not a luxury or an indulgence. They are necessary if you are to function at your best.
This isn’t only about the basic human need for rest and sleep. A term gaining increasing popularity these days is “decision fatigue.” Science demonstrates that our ability to make decisions is a well that can run dry. If we don’t rest and step back, we can struggle to make the simplest decisions and risk making the wrong ones too.
A “break” can mean lots of things. At one end of the scale, you have holidays and sabbaticals. At the other end, you have the micro-breaks which we should all remember to take: stretching our legs and walking away from the keyboard, getting fresh air, switching our phones off. You know, the things so many of us are bad at doing.
There’s a reason that mindfulness has become something of a mental health cliche. Brains are not designed for constant hustle. Learn to step away from it and you may be pleasantly surprised that you get more done, not less.
Let’s end by zooming back to the key question: IS multitasking a necessary evil?
In some ways, it’s hard to deny that it is. We don’t really have the option of dodging our cellphones, multiple email accounts, and instant messaging apps.
However, by understanding how multitasking works on a scientific level, there’s plenty we can do to mitigate its negative effects. This may require you to exercise your assertiveness and self-discipline, but it’s a worthwhile effort.
Human beings are capable of deep, thoughtful work that won’t be otherwise done by machines and artificial intelligence any time soon. Most people who have the space to do this kind of work find it enjoyable. It’s where that elusive “state of flow” resides.
So make that space. Give yourself a chance to give your best, with times away from the distractions and the endless notification “bings.” You could find a far deeper level of satisfaction than you get from those little dopamine hits!
Georgi Todorov is the SEO Manager at Semrush, responsible for establishing new processes at the company. He loves traveling, watching online courses, reading books, and listening to podcasts during his daily nature walks. Connect with him on Twitter and Linkedin.