Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why You Dislike Multi-Tasking

Do you prefer focusing or multi-tasking?

I often wish that I could live in what I like to call "Wardrobe Time."

In C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," four schoolchildren disappear through a wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia...for decades. They grow into adults there, ascend to Narnian thrones, and reign for many years. But when they return to the real world, they find that no time has elapsed at all. They're still kids.

I wish I could make time stand still too, not for decades but for a few hours here and there. I'd love to stop the clock on work deadlines while I enjoy time with my family. And I want to throw myself into work without missing a single moment of the precious, you'll-never-get-these-years-back stage of life my kids are in right now.

This is a simple enough wish, for more hours in the day. But I think I'm also longing for something more -- a world without multi-tasking or juggling. I want to plunge wholeheartedly into what I'm doing, without considering other things I could or should be attending to. In this age of "continuous partial attention" (my friend Linda Stone's brilliant expression for the fragmentary nature of modern life), most people have wishes like this.

But I would guess that introverts have them even more. We're not as good at extroverts at multi-tasking, research suggests; our brains juggle competing bits of incoming information less efficiently. On the other hand, introverts tend to be better than extroverts at focusing on single tasks. It's thought that this is a major reason why we enjoy focusing and going deep -- and why we don't like social chit-chat.

When you have a conversation, there's lots of information to decode all at once: words, body language, facial expressions. A simple talk with your best friend requires an astonishing array of tasks: interpreting what your friend is saying; taking turns talking and listening; responding to what your friend just said; assessing whether you're being understood; determining whether you've been favorably received, and if not, how to improve the situation. Think of what it takes to juggle all this at once! And that's just a one-on-one conversation. Now imagine the multi-tasking required in a group setting like a dinner party.

I find that even a simple social event like hosting a playdate can be stressful, because I can't easily divide my attention between mutiple people (the children, their parents) and multiple roles (parenting my own kids, making other kids feel comfortable, socializing with their moms, setting out the snacks.) It's so much more natural for me to interact separately with each person: a trip to the library with my kids, a tete-a-tete with a friend.

But I also find that it's helpful to understand why I feel this way. The very act of naming the problem frees me from the stress of wishing that multi-tasking came easier. I do as good a job as I can, and let that be that.

It also helps me appreciate what does come easily to me. I wouldn't be so good at focusing -- on my children, on my work -- if I weren't so bad at multi-tasking.

And you know what? I'm happy with that trade.

Your thoughts? Does this ring true for you?

If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Also, be sure to sign up for my newsletter. Get blog updates, plus a chance to win a half-hour coaching phone session with me. (Periodic drawings.)

For earlier posts on the Power of Introverts, please visit my website here.

Want to join the QUIET Online Book Club, for thoughtful, cerebral people? Please go here.

FOLLOW ME on Facebook and Twitter!

More from Susan Cain
More from Psychology Today