Why multitasking doesn't work

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

While moving through the day, you will find yourself turning from one task to another. Many of us find that ‘multitasking’ is what helps get us through the day more effectively and and ticking off more tasks on the to-do-list. You may have also heard that "women are better at multitasking than men" which allows them to do more. But what if we told you that multitasking is us fooling us into thinking that we’re doing more than one thing at a time? What if we told you that multitasking is actually unproductive?

When we decide to multitask we are actually either task switching or reducing the quality of our processing by doing multiple things at once. Tim Ferris notes that ‘"the human mind cannot multitask without drastically reducing the quality of our processing." For example, when listening to a lecture, the brain retention and capacity of processing content is cut in half if a person was also looking at their phones for visual content. Psychology Today state that the reason that multitasking doesn’t exists is because we can’t possibly be doing two things at the same time, we are rather 'task switching'.

So is task switching a bad thing? Here are some of the effects of task switching shown by research:

  • It takes more time to complete a task- this is because of the time it takes to move your mental state from one thing to another. Additionally, there’s also the time it takes to get into the rhythm and flow of what you’re working on. Jim Kwick notes that it can take from 5-20minutes for us to get back into flow

  • There are more errors in the task

  • The more complex a task, the more errors arise

  • Although simple tasks may not take up as much time when task switch in one sitting, they can result in up to 40% loss in productivity.

  • We can only do one thing at a time - you can only be thinking one thing at a time i.e. either reading, writing, talking. An exception to the rule was shown that if you’re really good at something physical you can do two things at once, however…both tasks may not be done well. For example, a study showed that people talking on their cell phones whilst walking ran into people more, and were much less likely to see or remember a person in a clown suit riding a unicycle than those not on a phone.

Multitasking/task switching has an effect on IQ!

While undertaking research for this blog we came across two interesting studies given their reference to sleep. As some of you may already be on the path to enhancing both the quantity and quality of sleep, the two studies may help bring to life the effect that multitasking/task-switching can have on our ability to thrive:

1) At The British Institute of Psychiatry, a study showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment by 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

2) The University of London found that multitasking can lower your IQ up to 15 points – the same effect as if you had stayed up all night.

So knowing this, what can you do?

At The 3pm Box, we’re here to ensure that you are thriving through the days, weeks and years to come and finding time to do what you love. With that in mind, we want you to be utilising your time effectively in order to achieve what it is you’ve set out for.

So the next time you find yourself working between many tasks, here are some suggestions to being more productive in effective execution:

  • Focus on one task fully and complete it effectively, then move onto the next

  • Write out a to-do list and look for groups or themes of activities you can do all in one sitting i.e. cooking dinner and prepping lunch for the next day, hanging clothes up on the line and then take the clothes down, work on one client project and then move to the next, respond to all emails and write reply to messages while at the computer.

  • The one minute rule – if something takes a minute to complete, do it straight away. This rule can take tasks off your to do list quickly!

  • Be mindful – when are the times you’re likely to be distracted between tasks? Is it when on the computer when doing work but also somehow doing online shopping? When working on a blog post but also scrolling on Instagram? Watching TV whilst doing homework or work? Set a plan and tell a partner, friend or someone you live with about these times and ask them to help hold you accountable to doing one thing at a time.

And if you're looking to take it to the next level with a professional accountability coach to help you with short and long term goals, drop us a line on hello@the3pmbox.com.au, we would love to help, one task at a time!