Multitasking is defined as being able to do multiple tasks at the same time.
We all like to think we are great multitaskers. We brag about it to our friends, family, and coworkers because it shows that we are doers. When faced with many challenging tasks, we get things done and get rewarded for it with praise, raises, and a sense of completion.
When we have so much to do and only 24 hours in a day, being able to do several things at once seems like a great skill to have. If it wasn’t for multitasking, we might not even make it out the door in the morning.
The truth of the matter is, for most people we can barely do two things at once. Sure, walking and chewing gum isn’t a problem for most of us. But for higher-level things that requires focus and manual dexterity, it is a lot more difficult.
Many people think they are perfectly capable of driving and talking on the phone at the same time. Yet multiple times a day, someone ends up parking their car in the backseat of the car in front of them. Usually in the middle of rush hour too.
Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work
When we think we are multitasking, what we are actually doing is jumping from task to task. Each time we switch tasks, we lose focus on what we were working on.
Research shows that this jumping back and forth between activities reduces productivity by up to 40%. Forty percent! That’s equivalent to you going to work 5 days a week and sitting around doing absolutely nothing for 2 of those days.
So we are not actually watching TV and checking our email at the same time. The commentary on TV get turned into background noise. Nor are we actually listening to music while studying or working at the same time. A study by Cardiff Metropolitan University found that students who revised homework in a quiet environment did 60% better on an exam than those who listened to music with lyrics.
A study at the University of Utah found that only a small percentage of participants – 2.5% to be exact, were able to successfully drive and do another activity. Do you feel lucky?
When you are constantly switching between tasks, your brain has to stop and restart each time you switch. It is like you hitting the brakes on your car every couple hundred feet. Those few seconds add up, costing you real time and efficiency.
You Cannot Learn To Multitask
Unlike learning how to do an activity like how to play tennis, where the more you play, the better you get; people who multitask often don’t get better at it. In fact, the more they multitasked, the worst they performed compared to people who performed a single task at a time.
A study at Stanford University found that that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time”.
One researcher states that heavy multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy” and “everything distracts them”.
In one test between low multitaskers and high multitaskers, the researchers found that the high multitaskers were constantly distracted, and the longer the test continued, the worst they did in remembering and filtering out irreverent information from their brains.
Then thinking those who multitasked often would be faster in switching from one task to another, the researchers came up with another test. Again, the frequent multitaskers did worst than the light multitaskers because they couldn’t keep things separate in their minds and focus on the task at hand.
The bottom line is multitaskers perform worst than single taskers in everything. Maybe it’s not ADD that is making it hard for people to pay attention. It’s people trying to do to many things at once.
Health Consequences of Multitasking
Not only does multitasking have a negative effect your productivity, it is also bad for your well being.
A study at the University of London found that individuals who multitask during cognitive tasks experienced an IQ score drop of 15 points. This is equivalent to declines from smoking marijuana or staying up all night. Men who multitasked lowered their scores to that of an 8-year-old.
Researchers at the University of Sussex found high multitaskers had less brain density in the area of the brain that is responsible for emotional and cognitive control. This results in emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.
The mental juggling between tasks also increases stress. When someone is constantly bombarded by information, the brain experiences an overload of activity that can lead to chronic stress from being unable to slow down and relax.
Focus Your Way To Success
You want to be rich? You want to be successful in life and at work? Focus on one thing and one thing only.
No one has gotten anywhere running around like a chicken with its head cut off. That is exactly what you are doing when you are doing too many things at once. Instead of doing something to the best of your ability, you are doing several things half-assed.
No one has gotten wealthy by multitasking and starting ten businesses or working ten jobs. Do one thing and do it well. Start one business and take it as far as you can. That is how you become rich.
Take a page from billionaire business titans. Bill Gates made his fortune from Microsoft. He even dropped out of Harvard to do it. Same with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Michael Dell started Dell Inc. Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world because of Amazon.
Even Elon Musk, who is the CEO or founder of Telsa, SpaceX, Neuralink, The Boring Company, and who has been called a real life Tony Stark, made his first millions with a software company called Zip2. Musk then started a financial services company after the sale of Zip2, which then became Paypal and got him into the nine-digit networth.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be a business owner and you like being an employee. Do you like your job and want to keep it? Focusing on your job will go a long way. You could even be waiting tables. The waiter or waitress who gets the customers their food quickly and gives great service will always get more tips and better reviews than the one who spends their time gossiping with coworkers or goofing off on their phone.
What To Do Instead
Do what’s important first
To avoid getting overwhelmed by all the things that are vying for your attention each day, prioritize tasks by what is most important.
We all have heard of the 80/20 rule. 20% of the work that you do brings 80% of the results. Identify the tasks that brings the most results and work on those first. Do them one at a time and get them done.
Do things in batches
Do you leave your email open on your computer and go check your email each time the new message notification goes off? By doing this you are interrupting your thought process each time an email comes in. Lets hope you don’t get a lot of spam! A better method is to only check email at certain times the day and reply to all the emails at once. I used to check my email dozens of times a day. Now I check it less than six times if even that and it’s rare I receive an email I’d need to reply to immediately.
You can use this method for almost everything whether it is checking text messages, voicemails, making phone calls, paying bills, and more.
It’s hard to resist for many of us to see what our friends have posted on Facebook or Instagram when you have the browser open, or go reaching for your phone to see who sent you a text if your phone is sitting at your desk next to you. Even something that is supposed to boost your productivity like having multiple monitors can actually make it harder to focus on what needs to be done.
Instead try setting aside time and do nothing else but one single task. Log off of gmail. Close out Facebook. Get off the computer. Clear your desk of everything. Turn off your phone. Close your office door. Turn off the TV. Tell yourself you’ll work on something for an hour straight and you’ll reward yourself once that hour is up or when the task is completed.
Just like your body, your mind needs time to rest and reset. This is especially true if you’ve been under a lot of stress from trying to meet deadlines and finishing projects. Otherwise, you could end up burning yourself out from being “always on”.
It is always good to take time off or go on a vacation. Not a working vacation either but one where you can be completely unavailable. No news on what the Kardashians are up to. No work emails or phone calls. Get off the grid. Maybe even avoid those vacations that are a tour with guides that are rushing you from place to place on a schedule. Do things on your own schedule. The internet tends to encourage people to rapidly switch from one task to another because there is always something new to draw one’s attention. One blogger I follow once said he was able to crank out dozens of posts after getting away to a cabin for a week far from everything.
The word “multitasking” originated from the use of a single CPU to do multiple jobs. Even early computers didn’t multitask that well because doing two jobs split the processing power in half. Thanks to multiple cores and threading, the CPUs of today can multitask effortlessly. Our brain on the other hand, is still the same as it was during the time of early humans. Only now, we have much more information to take in.
Instead of actually doing multiple tasks simultaneously, we are switching back and forth from multiple tasks. This switching comes at a cost of productivity loss, a temporary decline in our IQ, an increase in stress, it decreases the quality of our work, and increases the amount of mistakes and accidents.
Stop multitasking today and start benefiting.
Do you have a problem with trying to do too much at once? What have you done to be better at focusing at the task at hand?