The Myth of Multitasking

Chaitanya Arora
7 min readApr 27, 2021

I don’t know about you, but I currently have 18 tabs open on my computer, a French book, a math text book, my English homework, and a chemistry text book, all right in front of me. And of course, my phone is right next to all of that!

Needless to say, I have a lot of work to do. And, I do A LOT of “multitasking”. If you’re like me, then you understand the feeling of getting multiple things done at once. It seems like we’re being productive, especially if we have so many things to do. But, what if I told you that the convenient practice of “multitasking” isn’t all that it’s glorified out to be.

Now you may have heard this before, but if you haven’t, you’re in for a big shock: Multitasking is not real. I know, it’s a shocker and some very disappointing news to comprehend.

While you let that sit in, I’m going to give you an explanation.

Long story short: Our brains don’t have the ability to multitask, so doing multiple tasks at once is actually harmful to yourself.

Short story long:

It’s been scientifically proven that multitasking is impossible. Now, I’m not talking about chewing gum while walking or listening to music while doing the dishes. Our bodies can do those things on autopilot. Multitasking involves more complex tasks that are cognitively demanding. For example, writing a research paper while watching tv and eating dinner. Or, texting while driving (there’s many reasons why it’s illegal). These things are all impossible to do simultaneously because they require our full attention. So, multitasking does not mean that you’re doing two things at once, it simply means that you’re rapidly switching your attention back and forth between tasks, sometimes in as little as a tenth of a second.

Why Can’t We Do Multiple Things at Once?

Reproduced from Gráinne Logue 2016

It has to do with the part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex of the brain starts to work whenever you need to pay attention. It works to process tasks, make decisions, memorize things, and overall aids in keeping your attention on carrying out the task at hand by coordinating messages with other brain systems. When doing one task, both sides of the prefrontal cortex work together in harmony. For more menial things, bouncing back and forth isn’t a problem. Remember the example of walking while chewing gum. This required little demand of the prefrontal cortex, creating an easier switch between chewing and walking. But for more complex tasks, which we often consider to be “multitasking”, doing multiple things forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. For instance, talking to your friend while texting someone else at the same time is scientifically impossible because both tasks require the attention of your brain’s language centers.

But, if we have the amazing ability to bounce between tasks so fast, then what’s the issue?

The Effects of Multitasking:

Forcing our brains to shift attention back and forth causes the prefrontal cortex to burn oxygenated glucose, which is the fuel needed to stay on task. By multitasking fuel is burned through so quickly that it’s hard to stay focused and exhaustion sets in. This burning of fuel through multitasking leads to poor results and effects.

  • Multitasking impacts efficiency, productivity, and performance. When our brains are bouncing back and forth between complex tasks, we are less efficient and more likely to make a mistake. And the more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish, because we slowly lose our ability to focus. We have a state of mind called “flow”, where we’re so focused on a task that we have a high productivity rate. However, flow requires a good attention span, which multitasking significantly hinders. It can also affect the ability to learn because learning requires focus.

Multiple studies have found that “multitasking” causes people to spend much more time doing simple tasks. For every additional task you bounce between, productivity is decreased by at least 20%. In addition, a study found that college students who multitasked while doing homework, took longer and had lower grade averages.

A study at Carnegie Mellon University proved that when attempting to multitask, people had significantly less brain activity and took longer to complete each task than they did when they doing them one at a time. Leader of the study, Dr. Marcel, revealed that their performance would have suffered more if the tasks were more difficult. Proving, that the more complex a task is results in worse effects of multitasking.

  • Multitasking can lower your IQ. A study conducted by the University of London found that multitasking during cognitive tasks, caused an IQ score decline similar to those who stayed up all night. According to psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson, multitasking can negatively effect us in the same way that losing a night’s sleep would. Some of the men in the study experienced an IQ drop 15 points, leaving them with the average IQ of an 8-year-old kid.
  • Multitasking impacts short-term memory: Chances are you use your short-term memory all the time. It comes into play everyday in instances like, remembering a phone number between the time of hearing it and dialing into your phone, comprehending a new math concept in class, or remember driving instructions to landmarks while on vacation. This type of memory is known as “working memory”, which is the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind for a period of time after learning it. Needless to say, its crucial to every day life. A 2011 research study from the University of California San Francisco found that multitasking negatively impacts your working memory by decreasing its strength. It’s much harder to learn and remember things when your attention is not fully on one topic.
  • Multitasking leads to increased anxiety by causing you to lose focus and become more anxious. Neuroscientist Daniel Weissman, stated that multitasking increases stress hormones and adrenaline. This is linked to the fact that doing too much at once makes it harder to be mindful and that being present in the moment significantly helps manage anxiety.

So, after exploring the cons of multitasking, this is usually the time when I’d start to explain the pros. But, here’s the thing about multitasking: THERE AREN’T ANY. BUT, there are some pros to a thing called “single-tasking”. Let’s explore them.

The Benefits of Single-Tasking:

Single-tasking is basically the opposite of multitasking. Instead of trying to do multiple things at once, you focus on a single task. Unlike multitasking, it won’t decrease your memory or attention span, and has tremendous benefits.

  • We’ve learned that multitasking decreases productivity. On the other hand, single-tasking will help you get into a flow state, allowing you to actually get stuff done. As we’ve learned from multitasking, you’ll get your work done faster doing things one by one. And, choosing something to place all of your attention on for a set amount of time not only builds focus, but also allows you to prioritize your tasks. Did I mention that it’s 500% more productive than multitasking?
  • Single-tasking means less stress. When you multitask, you drain more time and energy. However, by single-tasking, you’ll get deep, in depth work done. Ultimately, this will lower anxiety levels.
  • Single-tasking unlocks creativity. It may initially be annoying to have to sit down and focus on one task. But, in the long run, this will bring out your creative potential. Single-tasking forces you to put all of your attention into a singular job, allowing you to think more clearly and come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have had while multitasking.

How to Start Practicing Single-Tasking:

  1. PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY. They are known distractions that will cause you to multitask and will result in a decreased attention span as well as all of those negative multitasking effects. Phones are our biggest distraction, and believe it or not, multitasking was not a huge issue before we lived in a world with cell phones.
  2. Set timers. Forcing yourself to retrain the way you work will be hard. Time block or use another method of timing to hold yourself accountable for focusing on a task for a set amount of time. Start with 10 minutes, and then gradually increase the time. You’ll find that getting into a flow state will become easier and easier.
  3. Prioritize your tasks. Make a list of things to do and the order you need to do them in. Do the most important tasks first and then work your way down the list. An Eisenhower Matrix can really help with this. It will allow you to see what your top priorities are and prevent you from trying to do it all at once.

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