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The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking has become an increasingly popular buzzword and perceived skill in the modern workforce. However, numerous studies have shown that multitasking is actually less productive than focusing on one task at a time. The concept of human multitasking is largely a myth.

Research has demonstrated that only about 2% of the population can effectively multitask. For the other 98%, performance and efficiency decline significantly when trying to juggle multiple tasks at once (American Psychological Association, 2006).

When multitasking, the brain is actually quickly switching between tasks rather than concurrently handling them. This rapid context switching leads to more mistakes and slower completion of tasks (Meyer, et al. 1995). For example, studies found that people talking on cell phones while driving were as impaired as drunk drivers with blood alcohol levels exceeding legal limits (Strayer et al., 2006).

Even activities as simple as emailing while on a conference call can result in poorer performance. In a study by Iqbal and Horvitz (2007), people responded to emails much slower while also on a call compared to handling emails individually.

Some key research findings on why multitasking does not work:

  • Switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% loss in productivity (American Psychological Association, 2006)

  • Chronic multitaskers perform worse on cognitive tests and are more prone to distractions (Ophira et al., 2009)

  • The prefrontal cortex, which handles complex thought, has limited capacity. Multitasking overloads it, resulting in poorer decision-making (Marois and Ivanoff, 2005).

The evidence clearly outlines the significant limitations of multitasking abilities in the human brain. For peak productivity and efficiency, focusing on one task at a time before moving to the next item is the best approach. The notion that multitasking leads to better outcomes has largely been debunked through numerous studies over the past two decades.

While the human brain is ill-equipped for effective multitasking, our work environments often encourage context-switching between multiple tasks. Some ways to minimize working in multitasking environments include:

  • When possible, batch similar tasks together that use the same tools and mindset. For example, check emails at designated times rather than constantly throughout the day.

  • Set portions of your day as "focus time," where notifications are silenced, and you only work on one project. Block outbreaks as well.

  • Prioritize your tasks and focus on the top 1-3 important ones first. Schedule less cognitively demanding tasks for when you are tired.

  • If your role regularly requires multitasking, speak with your manager about any flexibility to adjust responsibilities or scheduling.

  • Remove distractions in your workspace like cell phones and extra tabs. Work offline when you can.

  • Use noise-canceling headphones and productivity apps to minimize interruptions.

Making small adjustments to your workflow can minimize the contexts your brain has to switch between. This promotes better focus, decision-making, and workplace wellbeing.

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