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The Science of Multitasking

There’s debate in the field of productivity on if the science of multitasking is good or bad. For some, it’s efficient to do more than one task at a time. It’s a way to maximize productivity. In some circles, the people who can engage in multiple tasks effortlessly are the pinnacles of productivity and the standard everyone should strive towards.

Sometimes, multitasking makes sense. If you have to commute to work, you can listen to audiobooks as you drive or record your notes so that you’re ready for a meeting. But doing more than one thing at a time can be a distraction that divides your attention, producing less accurate results.

When it comes to the science of multitasking, the answer is clear: it isn’t good for your brain. Here are three science-backed reasons multitasking doesn’t work, and what you can do instead.

MULTITASKERS HAVE A SHORTER ATTENTION SPAN

A Stanford study found that people who consistently multitask may have a shorter attention span and get distracted more easily. The more media participants had to juggle, the worse their ability to pay attention and focus became.

It takes an average of twenty-three minutes to gain your focus back after an interruption, according to a study out of the University of California. That means every time you look away from your work to answer the phone, glance at a text, say hello to a colleague, accept a delivery, etc., it takes over twenty minutes to get back into the task at hand.

Even if multitaskers appear to switch seamlessly between tasks, their brain functionality still takes time to catch up between each change. That means details might slip, memory declines, and performance is detrimentally affected. They may appear to be operating at a ten, but they’re likely only performing at a five or a six.

In comparison, focusing on one task at a time means your brain can give full processing power and resources to that one thing. You’ll be able to get more done faster and then move on to the next item. Your work will improve, your productivity will improve, and you’ll be able to get more done in less time.

MULTITASKING IS BAD FOR YOUR BRAIN

Every time you have to stop and start a task, it takes brain power. In fact, studies show that each change can cost you as much as ten IQ points in terms of energy and functionality. Another study found that multitasking impacted the brain’s performance similarly to taking drugs or staying up all night.

If you aren’t careful, being constantly interrupted as you work can have devastating effects on your body and brain. According to a study from the University of California, Irvine, this can lead to exhaustion and stress-induced illnesses. Your error rates increase and the time to complete each task goes up.

YOUR MEMORY SUFFERS, TOO

Memory relies on focused cognition. It needs a goal. If you’re not focused on the task at hand, you’re essentially telling your brain that what you’re doing in that moment isn’t important. And the odds that you’ll remember the details dramatically decrease. The more focused you are on a task, the more relevance your brain is going to give the task. You’ll remember more about what you were doing, particularly if you connect that task with a goal.

Even more alarming, research is just now understanding how distractions can affect your memory—even if you aren’t currently engaged in a task. You might scroll your social media on your breaks or during meals. But studies show that this can impact both your long- and short-term memory and train distractibility at the same time.

If multitasking is an ingrained habit for you, there might be ways around it. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it and get more done:

1. GROUP TASKS TOGETHER

If you have a lot on your to-do list and can’t seem to gain focus on one activity at a time, group similar items together and work on them together. You can do all your research for various projects in one work session so that you can switch between subjects, but stay in a similar task. The same goes for answering emails and social media messages.

Choose items that need the same skill set, brain power, and creative energy to complete. That way, as you switch between them, the disruption is minimal and you can easily reengage those areas of your brain. This can also help you learn to minimize your to-do list, helping you train your focus. As you get better at completing these similar tasks, start getting more disciplined about how similar they are, and soon, you’ll be focusing on one task at a time.

2. DITCH THE BAD TYPE OF MULTITASKING

The multitasking that’s worse for your brain and work performance is the one that involves unhealthy distractions such as social media, stressing over future events, checking email all the time for no apparent reason, etc. You might set a timer for social media, or limit how much time or the time of day you have access to certain apps. Hide your phone or use a lock app that doesn’t let you in once you set a timer.

As we mentioned in the opening, some types of multitasking aren’t bad. You can listen to audiobooks, podcasts, or lectures while driving, exercising or doing chores. The key is to wait until you’re doing something that doesn’t require the same higher cognitive function. You can walk and listen at the same time with minimal interference in your brain.

Learning how to maximize your time by reducing distractions and increasing how you achieve your productivity can be a game-changer for your output. You’ll find that you have more momentum, clarity, and concentration when you sit down to do more focused work.

3. TAKE BREAKS

One thing multitaskers do that makes the situation even worse is not taking breaks every hour. Your brain needs rest, especially if you’re engaging in taxing activities. Try not to fill that time with even more distractions, or more tasks that require brain power. The more time you can give your brain to rest and recover, the faster you can get back to work—even if that means more multitasking.

Schedule your breaks ahead of time. If you’re doing a lot of multitasking, take them frequently, even if you don’t think you need one. The last thing you want is to feel burnt out at the end of the workday, so give breaks the valuable time they deserve. Allow your mind to wander. Meditate. Practice deep breathing exercises to boost your oxygen levels. Eat a healthy snack or get some exercise.

You want to give your brain the things it needs to function at its best, so be sure you don’t fill this time with work-related activities.

Conclusion

These three tricks will hopefully help you when you multitask, but also help you work towards reducing the amount of multitasking you’re currently doing. Focusing on a single task at a time is the best approach, particularly for executive functionality and higher cognitive processing. You’ll soon discover that you can remember more, increase your attention-span, concentration, and focus, and get more done in less time.

If you want to learn how to focus your distracted mind, watch this episode:

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