- The human brain cannot multitask effectively from a psychoneuroimmunological and evolutionary perspective.
- Multitasking lowers productivity, slows task completion, decreases task quality, creates stress, and leads to burnout.
- We tend to think of multitasking in the context of work; however, it applies to all areas of life.
How many times have you been asked during a job interview, “Are you a good multitasker?” or “How do you juggle multiple tasks at once?” How often has your boss said that you need to multitask better to be more productive or take on more responsibility? Or perhaps you feel the need to constantly juggle many competing tasks for your time and attention at home.
How many of you have listened to your spouse while simultaneously checking if that text that just came through is important? Sometimes we believe that we are inundated with so many tasks that we must multitask to complete them.
So, is multitasking a good thing? Let’s review if multitasking works, consider what happens psychologically when we multitask, and cover suggestions for dealing with multitasking. But first, what is multitasking? Multitasking consists of the following:
- Working on multiple tasks simultaneously.
- Switching back and forth rapidly among tasks.
- Performing multiple tasks in rapid succession.
Does Multitasking Work?
According to research and my personal and professional experience, the answer to this question is an overwhelming no! The human mind is not wired to multitask. It is evolutionarily scripted for mono-tasking.
Research has repeatedly and consistently found that multitasking is not feasible with human cognitive functioning (Jeong & Hwang, 2016; Madore & Wagner, 2019). To take this one step further, in one study, only 2.4 percent of participants were found to be able to multitask effectively (Watson & Strayer, 2010). And most fascinating, Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013) reported that people who think they are good at multitasking are actually not good at it!
Humans do not multitask well, and when a person says that he or she does multitask well, he or she is probably wrong. The human brain can only focus on one thing and one thing only at a time.
You can try to multitask, but research shows that it lowers productivity, increases errors, slows you down, can be perceived as disrespectful, distracts you, decreases the quality of the task itself, causes stress, and leads to burnout (Bellur et al., 2015; Jeong & Hwang, 2016; Madore & Wagner, 2019; Sanbonmatsu et al., 2013; Watson & Strayer, 2010; Weschler et al., 2018). Yet, we keep multitasking. This is what I refer to as the fallacy of multitasking.
What psychologically prevents us from multitasking?
Three psychological categories explain why human cognitive processing is not adept at the concept of multitasking.
Evolutionary neuropsychology – Although society has evolved quite rapidly, our brains have not. They still operate as if we remain on the plains of Africa, fighting for survival from predators and competing clans. To enable our survival, our brains direct all resources to one thing – detecting threats.
You cannot focus on finding the lion that will eat you while you are simultaneously distracted by smelling beautiful flowers. So the brain directs all attention to locating negative stimuli (those things that can kill you), which explains the concept of negativity bias. If you stray from focusing on one task, it leads to cognitive dissonance and stress as it goes against evolutionary neural processing.
Memory processing – From a high-level context, memory comprises working, short-term, and long-term neural processing. When you are focused on one task, all three aspects of memory are engaged by locating and engaging complex neural pathways to bring up your experience, education, and knowledge required to address the current task.
When you introduce a new task (that text message that interrupts you), your current memory recall is abandoned, and you start the entire process anew with the new task. This causes cognitive confusion and distraction, leading to errors and slower processing times.
Cognitive stress – Multitasking causes a stress reactive response, further degrading cognitive processing. When the sympathetic nervous system engages, many hormones and neurotransmitters are released (See my post on psychoneuroimmunology). Dopamine and noradrenaline (among other electroneurochemicals) cause prefrontal cortex responsiveness to degrade, allowing the amygdala to become centric.
You then react to emotions, and your logical reasoning and functioning are inhibited. This coupled with the memory dysregulation discussed above leads to greater task deficiency, error, and slowness. Additionally, as frustration with task performance increases, stress increases further, causing a vicious cycle.
These three psychological barriers to multitasking lead to the concept of task switch costs, which are the negative effects resulting from switching among tasks. We encounter task switch costs (e.g., slower completion times, increased errors, decreased quality) because of the increased mental demand caused by divergent task saturation and the brain's inability to move seamlessly among multitasking scenarios.
What to do about it?
Six steps can help you to gain control of the perceived need to multitask.
- Stop trying to multitask! Acknowledge that multitasking is not effective. Take control and make a mental commitment to not fall into the multitasking fallacy.
- Triage and Prioritize. Focus on one task, complete it, and move on to another task. This sounds simple enough, but when bombarded with multiple competing tasks and distractions, you must enact a triage and prioritization process, focusing on what is most important first.
- Set aside time for like tasks. For example, respond to emails or texts at certain set times (not as soon as they alert you).
- Limit distractions. Identify your most likely distractors and try to eliminate their potentiation. For example, turn your phone/texts off while working on a project.
- Help out, bosses. If you are a boss, implement practices that decrease the pressure employees feel to multitask. For example, have a strict no texting policy during meetings, don’t require immediate responses to texts when you send them, and encourage employees to close their doors when working on a project.
- Take care of yourself. Often, we multitask because we are overwhelmed by competing needs and are trying to get everything done. To better handle the multitude of needs, we need to slow down our cognitive processes and reduce our overall stress. The time spent on self-care will dramatically improve your overall productivity and happiness.
By avoiding multitasking, your results will improve, your productivity will increase, you will be less stressed, and you will find greater work and life satisfaction.
Bellur, S., Nowak, K., & Hull, K. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Comput Hum Behavarior, 53, 63-70. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.027
Jeong, S-H. & Hwang, Y. (2016). Media multitasking effects on cognitive vs. attitudinal outcomes: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Res, 42(4), 599-618. doi:10.1111/hcre.12089
Madore, K. & Wagner, A. (2019). Multicosts of multitasking. Cerebrum, 04-19.
Sanbonmatsu, D., Strayer, D., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Watson, J. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLOS ONE, 8(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402
Watson, J.M. & Strayer, D.L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 479–485. https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479
Wechsler, K., Drescher, U., Janouch, C., Haeger, M., Voelcker-Rehage, C., & Bock, O. (2018). Multitasking during simulated car driving: A comparison of young and older persons. Frontiers of Psychology. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00910