Multitasking or multiple distractions – the productivity myth

It is a popular opinion that multitasking is the king of productivity. When you try to envision a highly productive person he usually does multiple things at once.

Or so it seems.

Studies have confirmed that multitasking is a myth. The brain just doesn’t work that way. What really happens when you try to multitask is you switch your attention from one task to another in rapid succession. It happens so quickly that you perceive it as doing the tasks simultaniously. 

OK, so it’s not technically multi-tasking but it does improve productivity, right?

Unfortunately, no. You might think you are getting more done when attempting to multitask, while research indicates that multitaskers are actually less productive. Not only that, multitasking makes you less focused and more prone to making mistakes.

But why is that?

Each time you switch between tasks, you’re forcing your brain’s executive functions (the part that manages how you do tasks) to go through two energy-intensive processes. The first one is goal shifting. This is where you decide to do one activity instead of another. The second one is role activation. This is where you change from the rules or context needed to perform one task to the rules of the new one.

This is a stop/start process that costs your brain both time and energy. And according to a research done by Dr. David Meyer this costs as much as 40% of your productive time.

As if hindering our productivity wasn’t enough, this task-switching has severe consequences on our mental and physical well-being as well. Even though the switches are incredibly fast (tenths of a second), the delays and the loss of focus they cause add up.

A 2011 research study from the University of California San Francisco indicates that multitasking impacts your short-term memory, making it harder for you to filter through information and recall it. It also stops you from getting into the flow. Where flow is the state of mind where you are so focused on a task that your productivity skyrockets.

Focus on one thing and move on when you’re done, so you don’t pay unnecessary switching taxes.

—Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkele

So to sum up what we thought was multitasking is actually switching focus between tasks so quickly that it presents itself as working on multiple things simultaneously. It is not as efficient as it is perceived and it is taking a toll on your brain and mental state.


Effective task switching

Even though “multitasking” is not the optimal way of handling tasks sometimes it is the only way. There are situations in everyday life where you simply do not have the luxury to single-task, like:

  • Managing several social media accounts at once
  • Cooking dinner while looking after your toddler 
  • Signing for a delivery while helping a customer 
  • Serving drinks and presenting checks as a server 

In case you cannot afford to avoid task switching, here are some tips at doing it more effectively and minimizing its negative impact on your productivity.

Keep a neat to-do list at hand

When tackling multiple tasks and responsibilities at once, one of the most important things you should do is create and maintain a to-do list. Many people wait until they’re already overwhelmed to do so. Organizing everything you have on your plate is essential to your ability to multitask (or switch-task). A tidy to-do list also ensures you don’t miss specific components of the tasks. Keep your to-do list at hand and check with it regularly. You can check these 7 simple steps to creating efficient to-do lists.

Get better at prioritizing

As already mentioned, one of the negatives of multitasking (or task switching) is not being able to prioritize well. Learning to prioritize will improve your efficiency and will help you direct your time and energy to what matters most. For example, a meeting with your manager should likely have higher priority on your to-do list than answering a routine email. This applies to non-work related activities as well, keeping your child from accidentally harming herself should be more important than keeping the dinner from burning.

The Eisenhower Matrix is an easy and effective way to prioritize your taks.

Group similar tasks together

Switching your focus back and forth between different tasks is what takes a toll on your concentration and energy levels. A good way to decrease the negative effect of multitasking is to start out by working on tasks that are relatively similar to each other. The similarity will make it easier to shift focus and use less brain power to do so.

Avoid distractions 

This one is so obvious I hesitated if I should take up space to write it. If you want to be efficient, you’ll need to avoid distractions as much as possible. Especially when so many of us are working from home now, avoiding distractions can be a huge challenge.

Some basic things you can do to reduce the distractions:

  • Mute the notifications of all non-work related apps
  • Book yourself calendar events for specific high-priority tasks and during those times try to focus as much on this single task as possible
  • Post your schedule to your colleagues and family members so they are advised to not interrupt you in said times
  • Meditate. This might sound like a weird one to some of you, but research has proven that meditation improves cognitive abilities. Practicing meditation increases your attention span and concentration, making it easier to withstand distractions.

Learning to effectively single-task and improving your time management skills is what you should focus at in order to really increase your productivity. 

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.


3 thoughts on “Multitasking or multiple distractions – the productivity myth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: