All The Reasons Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

On today’s menu: why multitasking doesn’t work & how to foster deep focus. For a productivity geek like you and me, it sounds quite delicious, doesn’t it? So let’s bite into this topic!

There aren’t many things that come close to the feeling of satisfaction that washes over us while checking off the position from your to-do list, am I right? After all, it’s completely normal. Getting stuff done gives us a great sense of achievement (and endorphins). It’s good for our spirits and sense of confidence to be productive. This drive to succeed boosts our motivation to stay on top of our game as professionals, students, mothers, friends, or romantic partners.

Nevertheless, of course, there is a big fat BUT… As a society, we’ve grown to idolize success stories, glorify hustle and busyness. As an ugly effect of that, we’re all collectively pressured to always work, never sleep, and wear our never-ending to-do lists like a badge of honor. What worries me the most is how little attention we pay to the actual tasks at hand we’re working on and how much value we place solely on the number of results each of us can produce. Like a machine. Kind of crazy, isn’t it? Yet, that’s the reality.

How often do you rush from one task to another? 

Do you often try to tackle hundreds of tasks simultaneously, hoping to complete them all? 

Do you tend to fragment your attention between reading some documents at work, writing back to urgent emails, and answering a phone call in the meantime?

a photo of a planner, phone and laptop to symbolise why multitasking doesn't work

Let me break the news to you now:

We’ve been taught to put multitasking on a pedestal, calling it productivity,

when in fact, multitasking is such a myth

What happens to our performance and attention when we fragment it between different activities at the same time? 

Why multitasking doesn’t work? 

How to foster deep focus? 

To answer all these, we should start from the beginning and take a closer look at the star of today’s post: miss Multitasking herself…

Why multitasking doesn’t work?

There’s no such thing as multitasking. Huh? Yup, you read that right. Multitasking, in theory, is the attempt to engage in two or more tasks at the same time. Wouldn’t it be sweet to do that? Except that the human brain does not have superpowers, as far as I’m aware.

  • Think of your ability to focus as a limited resource, just like food, time, or money. Whenever you decide to split your attention between different activities, you also set a challenge for your brain that is way too difficult for it to tackle. Not only is your productivity more probable to decrease, but you’re also highly likely to make numerous mistakes, experience anxiety, frustration and end up feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. People are not wired to multitask. It eats up way too much energy and results in work of very mediocre quality. Seriously, on average, our IQ decreases by 10 points whenever we decide to multitask.

Instead of having a win-win situation, we actually end up losing. 

  • Another reason why multitasking doesn’t work is that we leave little to no mental space when we switch our attention between tasks. In such a situation, you can forget about having any kind of creative thought occurring. And you can definitely say goodbye to entering the state of flow.

Both of these fantastic things require sustained, intentional and deep focus.

Whereas multitasking is the opposite.

It boils down to something called context switching – going back and forth between various tasks very quickly. “Every additional task or tool you “switch” between eats up to 20% of your productivity”, says Jory MacKay in RescueTime. 

As I mentioned before, like it or not, human beings are not designed to work like a machine. Just because we “only take a look” at the inbox whenever we receive an email doesn’t mean it won’t affect the quality of our work. Quite the opposite.

our brain has limited resources and that's why multitasking doesn't work

Attention residue is the leftover focus that is still stuck to the previous task, even though we’ve already started a new one. We all know it; we’ve all been there. Think of this scenario:

POV: You're in your office, engaged in your work, with a razor-sharp focus, feeling motivated. You're typing something important on your keyboard, then all of a sudden, there's a phone call that you decide to take or an email that you choose to open. 

On the unconscious level, you fragment your attention between the two tasks. Maybe it was an angry boss telling you to fix an issue or a coworker informing you about an important meeting later that day. After a moment, you return to your previous job, hoping to jump right back into it. 

But the productivity vibe is completely gone. Poof! You're catching your thoughts wandering off, having to re-read the same sentence for the third time. While you're scratching your head, thinking: "What was I supposed to do now?", your focus is still stuck to whatever happened when you decided to interrupt yourself. 

Do you see it now? That's why multitasking doesn't work.

Did you know that…

on average, it takes us 20-25 minutes to redirect focus to the previous task after being distracted

it also takes up to 15 minutes of sustained, uninterrupted focus to dive back into the productive state of mind?

The good news?

Here are 5 tips on how you can stop multitasking today!

TIP 1: List things that consume your attention:

We all are unique individuals with specific habits and weaknesses. Naturally then, there will be different things constantly fighting for our attention. If you want to make a lasting change in your workflow, the first step is becoming aware of your personal attention grabbers. 

Start by becoming mindful of your working environment and your habits and behaviors regarding this area of your life. Try to detect your biggest obstacle standing on your way to achieving deep focus and practicing single-tasking. Here are some questions to get you going:

Is the tab with your inbox constantly open, informing you whenever you receive a new email?

Do you keep your phone at an arm’s reach at all times? Are your notifications on while working?

How does your desk look like? What about your desktop? 

Physical and digital clutter will always pull some of your attention away from your main objective, making you less efficient.

Go to work, notice what happens and make a list of those distractors. Now you know what to work on. Now you can spot specific areas for improvement. 

TIP 2: Create a Distraction-Free Zone:

Some people love working from cafes with baristas brewing coffee, people chatting and music softly playing from the speakers. Others cannot focus unless there’s complete silence around them. The thing is – smooth workflow can be achieved more quickly in a distraction-free zone. By removing as many attention-grabbers as you can, you set yourself up for success and increase your chances of entering a flow state.

When experiencing it, we gain these almost superhuman skills alongside tremendous amounts of energy, motivation, and razor-sharp focus. Time becomes subjective, and it seems like nothing could distract us from our single goal – the activity we pursue. Our thoughts quiet down, inner critic completely shuts down, which leads to a refreshing sense of mental clarity, self-confidence, and… joy! You might have experienced this state of mind while running, swimming, meditating, writing, making art, rock climbing, listening to music, or simply thinking.

What I find most fascinating about flow is that it applies to almost every activity in the world… under specific circumstances.

What if I told you that you can use the flow state to your advantage at work, at school, with your business and passion projects?

Learn how to enter flow state and unleash your productive self!

TIP 3: Do one task at a time:

Since you know why multitasking doesn’t work, it’s time to draw the one very obvious yet challenging to execute conclusion: 

We cannot do two complex tasks at the same time and expect good results.

There’s literally no gain in stretching yourself too thin. Unless you’re aiming for mediocrity in your work. Cal Newport explains it perfectly in his book “Deep Work”. He equates fostering such an immense state of focus with having a superpower. When we shift from fragmenting our attention between tasks to directing undivided attention to one task at a time, we enhance our cognitive functions and intellectual alertness. 

Putting in bluntly: by cultivating deep focus, you can achieve better results in less time.

So, sit down with your planner, and schedule your workday in the morning/the day before. Add a sense of structure and let your creativity thrive. Block some time throughout your day to focus on one task at a time. Once the task is completed, you can move on. This way, you satisfy your brain’s need for cognitive closure and combat attention residue!

TIP 4: A little pressure never killed nobody:

“What? Why would I WILLINGLY put pressure on myself? What is this idea?” – before you think that, let me explain:

Think of the times you didn’t have unlimited time to complete a project. There was simply no time to waste on getting distracted and sidetracked in your mind. Your focus was a bit more narrow, determined to finish the job before the deadline, right? I mean, that’s the reason number one why we procrastinate, but that’s a whole another topic…

Humans have a need for completion, meaning our attention cannot let go of a task until we’re satisfied with its end result. This is when we accept it as fully completed. However, we don’t always have such a luxury to keep perfecting each task indefinitely. Applying a little bit of time pressure can trick our brain into smoothly moving on from one project to another, even if it’s not ideal.

applying time pressure is one way to combat multi-tasking

Play this game next time you’re at work. Set little challenges for yourself throughout the day. Choose the least appealing tasks, like reading through a boring document or answering emails. Give yourself 30 minutes and see how many emails can you respond to within the time limit. Maybe even decide to reward yourself each time you set a new record!

TIP 5: Take a breather:

Last but definitely not least: take a breather. Literally, take some time to inhale and exhale. Seriously, even now – take a deep breath in and let it out. Stretch your bones. Fix your posture. Open up your chest. Hydrate. Check-in with yourself. Taking rest is such an essential part of productivity.

human brain is like an old computer and that's why multitasking doesn't work

Don’t bite more than you can chew. In the long term, it makes no sense. Your precious brain is like one of those old-school PCs. If too many tabs are open, your computer will freeze and overheat. Back in the day, you’d have to close your tabs after being done using them in order to keep your PC alive. We are the same. Take a break to reset, reboot the system and put yourself in a new, fresh mindset. Respect the limits of your body, don’t fight against it, support it, be your own best friend. Your future self will thank you for it.

Takeaway

Even after understanding why multitasking doesn’t work, we can still easily fall into the whirlwind of simultaneously tackling different tasks. Old habits die hard. After all, it’s only natural for us to want to perform well in our many roles in the professional, familial and personal areas of life.

“Attention, just like time, is a limited resource

and we need to learn to manage it well”

Sophie Leroy

However, noticing this issue is like seeing through the Matrix; there’s no coming back once you become aware of it. So if you’re to take away one or two lessons here, I’d put it down to:

  1. Work on one thing at a time. Complete it. Take a short break. Rinse and repeat.
  1. Go easy on yourself – it’s not easy or effortless to rewire your brain.

As always, feel free to ask us anything, update us on your journey and stay connected via social media!