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Slow Down: Multitasking Is Bad for Your Brain

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 30 Apr 2024

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A man juggling many balls at work
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Back in the day, it was rude to tap on your BlackBerry while sharing office gossip at the water cooler. Now, a Zoom call with your camera off is business speak for “half-listening, definitely doing something else, this meeting should have been an email.”

Microsoft estimates that work-related multitasking happens in about 30% of all virtual meetings, but most employees agree that it’s more about the pressure to meet deadlines than an actual belief that splitting your attention is somehow more efficient.

Studies show that multitasking is typically a disaster. We aren’t good at it. Simply sending a text while driving immediately increases the risk of a collision, but if we step back for a second, that’s kind of weird. Not that I’m advocating for distracted driving, but considering that the human brain is essentially a supercomputer completing billions of operations per second to manage sensory input and keep our vital systems online, why is it so hard to multitask?

It turns out, our brains are wired to do one thing at a time. Here’s how that knowledge can help you have a more productive workday.

The Problems with Multitasking

The Multitasking Myth

Bad news first: You aren’t as skilled as you think you are, at least not when it comes to multitasking.

Research consistently shows that the brain architecture favors monotasking — that is, doing one thing at a time. Now, granted, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Obviously the brain can do things like process sensory information and remind your lungs to breathe all while you’re furiously typing away at your desk, but conscious thoughts move through tasks one at a time.

In this way, your brain is like a computer. A single-core processor can, by definition, only complete one process at a time. The computer does those processes at lightning speed, giving the appearance of multitasking. Nowadays personal computers and phones use multicore processors, which means they can multitask, but that’s cheating — it’s like having two brains in your head. Each individual processor is still doing one thing at a time.

Intriguingly, a study at the University of Utah found that participants with low executive control — that is, the ability to focus and tune out distractions — reported higher levels of perceived multitasking. In other words, multitasking is less of a skill and more of a failure to focus. Even when we think we’re doing two things at once, we’re really allowing our brains to give in to distraction.

The Mental Impact of Task Switching

So if multitasking is more accurately described as super-rapid task switching, it’s easy to see why it takes more energy. Science backs this up: Quickly moving from task to task exhausts the frontal lobe of your brain. Instead of saving you time, multitasking wears you out.

Besides potentially being dangerous — like texting while driving — trying to multitask can lead to:

  • Decreased efficiency
  • More errors
  • Low-quality work
  • Poor retention
  • Burnout from exhaustion

If focusing helps you do one thing well, multitasking means doing two things poorly. That leads to stress and poor results at work.

 

So Why Do We Do It?

The jaded, cynical answer: We live in a performance-obsessed culture that overemphasizes work and puts absurd pressure on underpaid employees to chase impossible deadlines in a never-ending rat race.

Another possibility: We overestimate our abilities to do two things at once.

It’s the reason I listen to a podcast while working out or send emails while stuck in a pointless meeting. Often, it just makes sense to multitask, and we assume the time savings will come back as a benefit later in the day. The problem is that multitasking takes a heavy drain on quality. In the first example, truly paying attention to the podcast probably means I’m not exerting myself at my peak physical ability, but going hard in the workout probably means that I’m missing some key points of the podcast — or at least I won’t remember them very well later.

But in many situations, that’s okay. Maybe I’m just looking for some light cardio and I don’t need to run as hard as I can. Maybe that meeting really is pointless, and tuning it out is a wise choice. Keep in mind that we’re rarely good judges of our mental ability here. Half-listening to a meeting means you’ll end up with a half-understanding, which is often just as bad as not listening at all.

What To Do Instead

If you’re feeling tired and confused from trying (and failing) to multitask all day, you can do a few things.

  • Prioritize. Make a good old-fashioned list and start at the top. Your brain does one thing at a time anyway, so you might as well finish the thing before you move on.
  • Turn off distractions. This is the reason so many people find white noise helpful for focusing. Your favorite music is a temptation for your mind to drift, but canceling outside noises helps you stay on a single task. Try turning off notifications on your phone or putting it in another room while you get work done.
  • Take breaks. Your brain really does get tired of thinking. Most productivity experts agree that short bursts of 20-25 minutes followed by breaks are more useful than going nonstop for an hour straight. Breaks can also motivate you to turn off distractions. It’s easier to ignore your phone now when you know you’ll be able to check it in a few minutes.

Of course, another idea is to cut things out of your schedule. Instead of striving to multitask on many items, choose a few tasks that you want to do well. Easier said than done, I know, but it is how your brain works best.

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Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about smarter ways to use our brains.

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