by Ellen Blake
Is multitasking good for the brain?
Many of us think of ourselves as great multitaskers. As someone who can accomplish many different tasks in a short time period regularly. my multitasking skills were always a huge source of pride for me. In contrast, my husband is not a good multitasker. I tried to help him improve this skill for years to become more efficient. We are all busy with endless to-do lists, so multitasking is important, right? It seems that taking on more than one task at a time is the only way to get everything done. But the question is, is multitasking good for the brain? And does it help you get more accomplished?
What is Multitasking?
Multitasking refers to the act of performing multiple tasks simultaneously or in rapid succession. It involves switching between tasks quickly or trying to manage several jobs at the same time. Multitasking can occur in various contexts, including work, daily life, and technology usage. Examples of multitasking include answering emails while watching TV, cooking dinner while listening to a podcast, or talking on the phone while driving.
A lot of people think this is just good time management, but lately, I am starting to rethink multitasking. Studies show we become less efficient and more likely to make mistakes when our brains switch gears to constantly bounce back and forth between tasks, especially with complex and demanding activities. Multitasking is counterproductive, reduces cognitive performance, and harms your brain and mental health.
How Multitasking Interferes with Focus
Trying to do more than one task at a time interferes with focus for a variety of reasons. It all starts with the cerebral cortex, the part of our brains responsible for executive processing. These processes include thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, accessing memories, organization, and time management.
These two stages include goal shifting and rule activation. Goal shifting refers to the process of shifting our attention from one task to another. Rule activation refers to the process of activating a rule or set of rules in response to a specific event or condition and identifies what the brain needs to do. Research shows our brains turn off the rules for the previous task and turn on the rules for the new task depending upon the goal. So, while we think we are accomplishing multiple tasks at once – or multitasking – these stages do not work simultaneously. They actually work in a linear reaction with a focus on reactivation and repeat. This process is speedy, occurring within a tenth of a second. It’s so fast we are not aware it’s happening. Similar to flicking a light on and off rapidly, we are often left feeling burned out.
Below are specific ways multitasking affects our productivity.
When multitasking, your brain must juggle multiple tasks and switch between them. This constant context switching increases cognitive load, which can overwhelm your working memory. As a result, you may find it challenging to concentrate on any one task deeply.
Multitasking often involves dividing your attention among different activities. This means that you may not give any one task your full attention, leading to decreased overall performance and understanding of each task.
Frequent task-switching can disrupt the encoding and retrieval of information in your memory. This may lead to forgetfulness and difficulties in recalling important details related to the tasks you’re working on.
Contrary to the belief that multitasking makes you more productive, research suggests that it actually reduces efficiency. This is because you spend time and mental energy switching between tasks instead of completing them sequentially.
Multitasking can result in more mistakes and errors. When your attention is divided, you’re more likely to overlook details or make careless errors, especially in tasks that require precision or critical thinking.
Stress and Fatigue
Trying to do too many things at once can be mentally taxing and stressful. This can lead to increased stress levels and mental fatigue, further diminishing your ability to focus.
Loss of Depth
Multitasking often means you skim the surface of tasks rather than delving deep into them. You miss out on the benefits of deep focus, possibly preventing a lack of mastery in any particular skill or area.
Deep focus allows your mind to make connections and think creatively. Multitasking can limit your ability to think deeply and make innovative connections between ideas.
Inefficient Time Management
People often overestimate their ability to multitask effectively. They may believe they are accomplishing more, but in reality, they are often spending more time on tasks due to errors, rework, and inefficiency.
When you’re distracted by multiple tasks, your ability to communicate effectively, both in written and spoken form, can suffer. This can have negative consequences in personal and professional settings.
How to Stop Multitasking and Get More Done
Multitasking interferes with focus because it divides our attention, increases cognitive load, impairs memory and productivity, and makes us feel more fatigued. To enhance focus and productivity, it’s more effective to prioritize tasks, focus on one task at a time, and use techniques like time blocking to allocate dedicated periods for deep work. Remember that breaking the habit of multitasking and improving focus takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself as you develop these skills and create a more productive work routine.
Stopping multitasking and becoming more focused and productive can be achieved through various strategies and techniques. Here are some helpful strategies and techniques to help you stop multitasking and get more done:
- Prioritize Tasks: Start by identifying your most important and urgent tasks. Focus on completing one task at a time before moving on to the next. Use techniques like the Eisenhower Matrix to categorize tasks based on their importance and urgency.
- Set Clear Goals: Define clear and specific goals for each task. Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you maintain focus and avoid distractions.
- Time Blocking: Allocate specific time blocks for different tasks or categories of work. During these time blocks, focus exclusively on the designated task and avoid switching to other activities.
- Eliminate Distractions: Identify and remove or minimize distractions in your work environment. This could include turning off notifications on your devices, closing unnecessary tabs or apps, and creating a clutter-free workspace.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique: Work in focused intervals, such as 25 minutes of concentrated work followed by a 5-minute break. Repeat this cycle to maintain productivity without burning out.
- Single-Tasking: Commit to working on one task at a time. Give it your full attention until it’s completed or until you reach a natural stopping point.
- Practice Mindfulness: Cultivate mindfulness to improve your ability to concentrate. Mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, can help you become more aware of distractions and bring your attention back to the task at hand.
- Set Boundaries: Communicate your need for uninterrupted work time to colleagues, friends, or family members. Establish boundaries to minimize interruptions during your focused work periods.
- Use To-Do Lists: Create a to-do list or task management system to keep track of your priorities and progress. Crossing off completed tasks can provide a sense of accomplishment and motivation.
- Batch Similar Tasks: Group similar tasks together and complete them in one go. For example, dedicate a specific time slot for replying to emails, making phone calls, or conducting research.
- Take Regular Breaks: Schedule short breaks between work sessions to recharge. Use this time to stretch, move around, or clear your mind before returning to your tasks with renewed focus.
- Delegate: Delegate tasks when possible. If you have tasks that others can handle, delegate them to free up your time for more important responsibilities.
- Limit Multitasking Tools: Avoid using multiple devices or apps simultaneously. Stick to one device or application for the task you’re currently working on.
- Evaluate Your Productivity: Periodically review your productivity and make adjustments to your workflow as needed. Experiment with different techniques to find what works best for you.
Setting Reasonable Expectations
Are you a people pleaser? Many of us put personal priorities on the back burner to attend to help someone else with a requested activity. Who doesn’t want to be seen as helpful and agreeable? Sometimes we end up multitasking because we put ourselves in a position where we do what someone else wants us to do and then are squeezed for time when trying to complete our own tasks. Is saying yes to someone who asks for help your own expectation or that of the person asking? Take a minute to think about what is being asked of you prior before agreeing to a commitment that might force you to neglect your other responsibilities. You don’t have to say no if you don’t think you can reasonably do exactly what the other person requests; it might make sense to instead communicate specifically what you can do to help.
You can alleviate the chaos that can ensue from multitasking if you spend your time intentionally single-tasking. Rather than feeling drained and unproductive, you will feel more accomplished, and efficient, and find yourself with energy to spare.
FAQs About Multitasking
To help answer the question, “Is multitasking good for the brain?”, below are some FAQs along with their answers.
How does multitasking affect productivity?
When you multitask, your brain has to constantly switch its focus between different tasks. This constant switching can decrease overall productivity as it takes time for your brain to re-orient itself to each task.
Does multitasking impact the quality of work?
Yes, multitasking can significantly impact the quality of your work. When you’re juggling multiple tasks, you’re more likely to make errors or produce lower-quality results because you’re not fully focused on any one task.
Can multitasking lead to increased stress and anxiety?
Yes, multitasking can increase stress and anxiety levels. Trying to manage multiple tasks simultaneously can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of stress, frustration, and even burnout.
Does multitasking affect memory and learning?
Multitasking can impair memory and learning. When you’re not fully engaged in a task, it’s harder to retain information and grasp complex concepts.
Is multitasking detrimental to creativity?
Yes, multitasking can hinder creativity. Creative thinking often requires deep focus and the ability to explore ideas deeply, which is difficult to achieve when constantly switching between tasks.
How can I overcome the habit of multitasking?
To overcome the habit of multitasking, try practicing mindfulness and single-tasking. Set specific times for focused work, minimize distractions, and prioritize tasks to help you stay focused on one thing at a time.
Are there situations where multitasking is okay?
Some simple tasks, like listening to music while doing household chores, may not significantly impact your productivity. However, for complex or important tasks, it’s generally best to avoid multitasking.