Why Multitasking Is a Myth That's Breaking Your Brain and Wasting Your Time
You might think you're a great multitasker, but you're not. There's no such thing.
When I was younger, I, like many young entrepreneurs, prided myself on being a master at multitasking. I thought I needed to be a strong multitasker to optimize efficiency and productivity at every moment. And I thought that everyone who was successful got to where they were by being great multitaskers. But, the truth is, there's really no such thing as multitasking.
The myth of multitasking
Most of us think of multitasking as a necessary part of life. How else could we possibly meet the demands of our over-scheduled, hectic lives? But, the truth is, you can only truly multitask (accomplish more than one task simultaneously) if:
- One or more of the tasks is "second nature. In other words, it is so well-learned that no real thought is necessary to complete the task, like chewing gum or walking.
- The tasks being performed involve different brain processes. For instance, if you're reading a book, you can listen to classical (instrumental) music at the same time, but if you listen to music with lyrics, you won't retain as much of the information you're reading. This is because both reading and listening to songs with words activate the language center of the brain. And the brain literally cannot process more than one task in any given category at a time.
So, for all of us who insist we're multitaskers, what does this really mean? It means that we might feel like we're multitasking, and we might even appear to others as though we're multitasking, but we're actually completely switching from one task to another over and over. As much as you might feel like you have the ability to read your email, talk on the phone and engage in Facebook Messenger chat all at once, it's literally impossible. What you're actually doing is playing multiple games of "red light/green light" in your brain -- constantly starting and stopping each task repeatedly. This is known in psychology as "serial tasking," not multitasking.
The downside of multitasking
Some compelling research by the American Psychological Association shows that what you think is multitasking is ineffective and inefficient. According to studies, as you switch from one task to another (red light/green light), the transition is not a smooth one. There's a lag time while your brain shifts attention from one task to another. And while it feels like this shift is seamless, it actually takes time. How much time? Research has shown that multitasking takes as much as 40 percent more time than focusing on one task at a time -- more for complex tasks.
And now for the really bad news: a respected Stanford University study actually showed that those who consider themselves to be great multitaskers made more mistakes, remembered fewer details and actually took longer to complete tasks than those who did not consider themselves to be frequent multitaskers. Several years ago, I would have firmly argued against that point, but now that I'm more of a seasoned entrepreneur, I must admit that focusing on one thing at a time makes for higher quality work.
The next step
Whether or not you're convinced that multitasking is a myth, I challenge you to try shifting to single-tasking. Focus on one project or activity at a time, then switch to the next when you're finished. You're likely to see an increase in your productivity, and you might actually end up saving time, as strange as that might seem.
Also, it's good for relationships. If you're reading your email while someone is talking to you, you're not really listening or you're not retaining what you read. Either way, it's just no good.
Some of the most successful entrepreneurs I know have designated times for checking email, using social media and making phone calls. They focus on that one task until they're caught up, then move to the next. In the meantime, whatever they aren't focusing on is closed. No email notifications all day, no Facebook message popups and no answering calls that aren't necessary, unless it's that tasks time for attention.
What do you think? Is multitasking a productivity killer or are you the exception? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.