The Multi-Tasking Myth

muddled thoughts

“ A man who chases two rabbits catches none. ”
v                                            – Roman Proverb

It may surprise you to hear that people who multi-task are actually less productive than those who just concentrate on one project at a time. (Yep, that’s us blokes. Haven’t you heard the ladies say: “He’s a man! What do you expect? He can only do one thing at a time.”)

For both men and women, our brains are not built to multi-task. They are designed to focus on one thing at a time and bombarding them with information only slows them down. (If you don’t believe me, try listening to your car radio when you are driving to a new location on a busy road. The volume is invariably turned down or off).


“… when people think they’re multi-tasking,
they’re actually just switching from one task to another …”

The research of Bergman (along with MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller) notes that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.” So, if you think you are good at multitasking you are simply good at being faster at switching back and forth between two things.

Why multi-tasking is bad for us

A Harvard Business Review post claimed multi-tasking leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity, increased stress, and a 10% drop in IQ (Bergman, 2010). Here’s some of the research around this.

Produces addictive habits

The constant task-switching encourages bad brain habits. When we complete a tiny task (sending an email, answering a text message, posting a tweet), we are hit with a dollop of dopamine which is our reward hormone. As our brains love dopamine we’re encouraged to keep switching between small mini-tasks that give us instant and constant gratification.

This creates a dangerous feedback loop that makes us feel like we’re being really productive, when we’re actually not doing much at all (or at least nothing requiring much critical thinking). In fact, some even refer to email/Twitter/Facebook-checking as a neural addiction.

Lowers performance and reduces productivity

Multi-tasking makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information, and it reduces the efficiency and quality of our work.

Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) discovered that people who reported multi-tasking more frequently (heavy multi-taskers) were actually more prone to being distracted compared with those who reported multi-tasking less frequently (light multi-taskers). Heavy multi-taskers tend to have a hard time filtering out irrelevant stimuli from their environment, and are distracted by the multiple things that they’re trying to allocate their attention to.

In essence, heavy multi-taskers may be “sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information” (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009, p. 155).

So multi-tasking reduces our efficiency and performance because our brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

You might believe that you have a special gift for multi-tasking.

Here’s what the Stanford researchers concluded. They compared groups of people based on their tendency to multi-task and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multi-taskers—those who multi-task a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multi-tasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time.

Lowers IQ

In addition to reducing your productivity and performance, multi-tasking lowers your IQ.

A study at the University of London showed that subjects who multi-tasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced significant IQ drops. In fact, the IQ drops were similar to what you see in individuals who skip a night of sleep or who smoke marijuana. Now that’s a terrifying consequence!

An IQ drop of 15 points in multi-tasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child. So, think twice the next time you’re writing your boss an email during a meeting. Remember that your cognitive capacity is being diminished to the point that you might as well let an 8-year-old write it for you!

Causes brain damage

It was previously understood that cognitive impairment from multi-tasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise.Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK studied the effects from the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV). From MRI scans they found that high multi-taskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. So multi-tasking has a negative impact on our Emotional Intelligence also.While more research is needed to determine if multi-tasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multi-task), it’s clear that multi-tasking has negative effects.Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained the implications: “I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”So every time you multi-task you aren’t just harming your performance in the moment; you may very well be damaging an area of your brain that’s critical to your future success at work.

Summary of learnings about multi-tasking

If you’re prone to multi-tasking, this is not a habit you’ll want to indulge—

  • It slows us down and decreases the quality of our work. People who multi-task are less productive/efficient than those who simply concentrate on one project a time.
  • We don’t actually “multi-task” because our brain switches rapidly between handling one task and then another.
  • Allowing ourselves to multi-task will exacerbate any existing difficulties we have with concentration, organization, and attention to detail.
  • Multi-tasking in meetings and other social settings indicates low Self and Social Awareness -two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are critical to success at work.
  • TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that 90% of top performers have high EQs. If multi-tasking does indeed damage the anterior cingulate cortex (a key brain region for EQ) as current research suggests, it will lower your EQ in the process.

How can you change?

Essentially, in the work environment of today, we are talking about time management. At the obvious and basic level, to avoid switching try to implement the following routines into your day.

  • Simplify your life and your tasks and do fewer things better.
  • Don’t allow your inbox to dictate your day.
  • Set specific times for writing and reading emails.
  • Switch off those annoying and demanding electronic distractions which notify you of incoming emails and messages.
  • Make priority lists daily (before switching on your laptop)

At a deeper level, I suggest doing a lot more to stop these bad habits and insidious distractions impacting your brain and performance.

  • Become more self-aware. Notice when and why you switch from one task to another. Are you doing it out of procrastination, to alleviate boredom or to avoid doing something more difficult and demanding? Or has it now become a really bad habit?
  • Practice mindfulness at work. When you are in the middle of a project or an important task notice what is going on for you. When you are “in the flow” or “in the zone” time seems to race by. Notice the energy, the intentionality and sense of purpose flowing through you when you are mindfully engaged. In these times you are on-purpose and you will be less inclined to multi-task.
  • Live and work in the now. Our lives are over fragmented. Next time you are out with family, friends or a colleague (even for coffee) stay focussed and enjoy the moment. (I have noticed even in restaurants, that people are engaged with their electronic devices and not with each other). This is tragic and producing a “head down” society increasingly unable to meaningfully connect and engage with each other. Notice when you are doing this and stop it!

Final Notes

So, next time someone tells you they are great at time management because they multi-task, perhaps you have something to share with them!

If you would like to improve your productivity and performance in the work place please shoot me through an email or give me a call.  I’d love to assist you.

Dr Edward Gifford

Managing Director On-Purpose Partners
Principal Consultant Executive Career Move