The Myth of Multitasking

Think you can multitask well? Think again.

Posted May 12, 2014

Think you’re good at doing several things at once?

Reading and listening to music? Driving and talking on the phone (hands-free, of course), or texting while sitting in a meeting? 

Think again. 

Research in neuroscience tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music, to writing a text, or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain. 

That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy. 

Still don’t believe me? 

Take a small test that I learned recently in a workshop about mindfulness, delivered by the Potential Project, a group based out of Denmark. Here it is:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
  • On the first line, write: 
    • I am a great multitasker
  • I am a great multitasker
  • On the second line, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
    • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask. 

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter "I" and then the number "1" and then the letter "a" and then the number "2" and so on, until you complete both lines.

I a…..

1 2…..

I’ll bet you your time is double or more what it was on the first round. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number. 

That’s switch-tasking on something very simple, but that's exactly what happens when we attempt to do many things (often more complex) at the same time. 

So next time you think you’re multi-tasking, stop and be aware that you are really switch-tasking.  Then give yourself a time limit (10 minutes, 45 minutes?) and focus on just one task and see if you can’t complete it better, faster, and with less energy.