Multitasking—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Multitasking. Everyone seems to headline it on their resume, and employers take it as a given that you’ll do it.  Our culture extols the benefits of multitasking, from increased productivity and mental focus to the ability to handle distractions. And technology continues to encourage our multitasking habits by giving us the ability to multitask wherever, whenever.


But is multitasking all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s find out as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of multitasking.

Strike that, reverse it. We’re taking things in the opposite order today.

The Ugly Truth About Multitasking

No one can multitask. Not technically speaking at least. As far as our brains are concerned, “multitasking” is corporate jargon. What brains perform is a process called "task switching."

Put simply, when you focus on a task, your brain must figure out what the task is, find the neurons responsible for that task, and then activate those neurons. When you decide to focus on a different task, your brain must disengage the previous neurons, figure out the new task, find a new set of neurons, and activate those.

To be clear, we’re talking about tasks that require attention. You can balance the books and chew gum, because the act of chewing is completely automated. You don’t have to pay attention to the gum; your jaw will manage just fine.

But your brain cannot focus on multiple attention-related tasks and must constantly switch between them. This is why you catch yourself thinking, “Where was I?” and asking, “What did you say?” when you try to write an email and have a conversation simultaneously.

Not convinced? Try this test to see task switching in action.

Multitasking: The Bad

The negative effects of multitasking are more severe than a phoned-in conversation. They can have deleterious effects on the quality of your work, and your physical and mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that

And that’s the short list.

Multitasking: The Good

Now for some good news. Understanding how the mind handles multitasking will help you devise strategies to lessen those negative effects. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Remove the distractions. Removing distractions improves focus and reduces the impulse to multitask. We’re talking both work-related distractions (less important tasks) as well as distractions of our own making (social media).

Turn off your cellphone and put it away. Close any browser window not necessary to work — an internet-blocking app can help here. If you work in an open office environment, you may need to ask your coworkers to not disturb you. Subtle signs, like headphones, can help get this message across. If your coworkers aren’t great hint takers, consider an actual “Do Not Disturb” sign.

List your priorities. Multitasking can stem from an uncritical assessment of your workload. If you think all tasks are equally important, you won’t be able to focus on just one. Listing your priorities in order of importance will help. Think of it as mental triage; the list will let you know exactly where to focus your efforts.

Schedule your time. Set aside time for important tasks, and schedule that work for whenever you are most productive. We recommend earlier in the morning, when your brain is fully energized with glucose and a touch of caffeine.

Less demanding tasks—writing emails, meetings, compiling notes, etc.—should be scheduled at a different time. Try to block out a specific time for emails, a specific time for compiling notes, and so on. If that’s not possible, don’t fret. Multitasking these low-attention, low-importance tasks should not add too much pressure to the day if time is set aside specifically for them.

Take breaks. People who take regular breaks are better able to focus and manage their emotions. Breaks energize your mind and clear your thoughts. Everyone’s optimal work-to-break ratio will be different, but we recommend trying 60 minutes of focused work followed by a 15-minute break. Adjust to fit your specific needs.

Don’t get discouraged. If you’re a habitual multitasker, making changes won’t be easy. Your brain has been programed to jump from one task to another like an excited terrier. Don’t get discouraged. Accept that it will take practice, put the phone down, close instant messenger, and start again.

Talk with your boss. Too often, company cultures view multitasking as a sign of efficiency and value in employees. In such environments, a person’s attempt to limit multitasking to increase productivity and improve work-life balance may be viewed as laziness.

If this sounds like your office, then try to set aside time to talk with your manager. Share the data on multitasking, and brainstorm ideas for how to improve the workplace. Maybe even consider a trial run where you implement your ideas, and see if they increase your productivity and work-life balance.

Want to completely remove multitasking from your life? Good luck. Studies have shown multitasking’s disadvantages clearly outweigh its perceived benefits, but life and work are messier than studies. The urge to multitask—to get just a little more done just a little faster—will always be there. But by critically examining the good, the bad, and the ugly of multitasking, we can learn to create good work habits, ones that will reflect our values and benefit our lives.


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