How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health

Man multitasking at his desk while working late

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Multitasking seems like a great way to get a lot done at once, but research has shown that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some research suggests that multitasking can actually hamper your productivity by reducing your comprehension, attention, and overall performance.

What is it that makes multitasking such a productivity killer? It might seem like you are accomplishing multiple things at the same time, but what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. Switching from one task to another may make it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down.

What Is Multitasking?

  • Working on two or more tasks simultaneously
  • Switching back and forth from one thing to another
  • Performing a number of tasks in rapid succession

How Multitasking Hampers Productivity

Multitasking takes a serious toll on productivity. Our brains lack the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time—in moments where we think we're multitasking, we're likely just switching quickly from task to task. Focusing on a single task is a much more effective approach for several reasons.

Multitasking Is Distracting

Multitaskers may feel more distracted than people who focus on one task at a time. This makes sense when you consider that, by habit, multitaskers constantly refocus on a new task, effectively distracting themselves from their original assignment.

Some research suggests that multitaskers are more distractible, and they may have trouble focusing their attention even when they're not working on multiple tasks at once. Other research shows that while there may be a connection between multitasking and distraction, that link is smaller than originally thought and varies quite a bit from person to person.

Multitasking Slows You Down

While it may seem contrary to popular belief, we tend to work slower and less efficiently when we multitask. Multitasking leads to what psychologists call "task switch costs," or the negative effects that come from switching from task to task. We encounter task switch costs (like a slower working pace) because of the increased mental demand that's associated with jumping from one thing to another.

Changing our focus also keeps us from relying on automatic behaviors to finish tasks quickly. When we're focused on a single task that we've done before, we can work on "autopilot," which frees up mental resources. Switching back and forth bypasses this process, and we tend to work more slowly as a result.

Multitasking Impairs Executive Function

Multitasking is managed by executive functions in the brain. These control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. There are two stages to the executive control process:

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Rule activation: Changing from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task

Moving through these stages may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly. This might not be a big deal when you are folding laundry and watching television at the same time. However, if you are in a situation where safety or productivity is important, such as when you are driving in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical.

Multitaskers Make Mistakes

Multitasking may lower your performance and make you more prone to making mistakes. Research has shown that students who multitask in class tend to have lower GPAs (and, if they continue multitasking at home, they often take longer to finish their homework).

Adults may also experience lower performance while multitasking. One 2018 study found that older adults were likely to make more mistakes while driving if they were multitasking.

Brain Function in Multitaskers

Doing several different things at once can impair cognitive ability, even for people who multitask frequently. In fact, research suggests that people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask, and the people who engage in this habit most frequently often lack the skills needed to be effective at it.

Chronic multitaskers tend to show more impulsivity than their peers, and they may be more likely to downplay possible risks associated with tackling multiple things at once. They also seem to show lower levels of executive control and are often distracted easily.

Limited cognitive resources may be involved in this phenomenon. Several networks in the brain interact to guide our behavior whenever we set out to complete a task. This behavior includes:

  • Setting a goal
  • Identifying the information we need to achieve it
  • Disregarding irrelevant distractions

When we try to engage in this process for multiple tasks at once, it can lead to cognitive errors. We might fail to disregard irrelevant information, for instance, which would lead to more distraction.

The research isn't clear on the exact relationship between multitasking and brain function. It's possible that chronic multitasking changes the brain over time, leading to more distractibility and problems with focus, or it may be that people with these traits are more likely to multitask in the first place.

Teens and Multitasking

The negative impact of chronic, heavy multitasking might be particularly detrimental to adolescent minds. At this age, brains are busy forming important neural connections. Spreading attention so thin and constantly being distracted by different streams of information might have a serious, long-term, negative impact on how these connections form.

Media Multitasking

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking (using more than one form of media or type of technology at once) might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. In one study, participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage. The participants then completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when an item changed color.

Heavy multitaskers performed better on the search when the sound was presented, indicating that they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

Break the Multitasking Habit

If you feel like multitasking is negatively impacting your life, it is possible to make some changes that will increase your productivity and efficiency. Next time you find yourself multitasking, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish. Then, determine which task you need to focus on first. Try to:

  • Limit the number of things you juggle at any given time to just one task. If you do need to work on multiple things at once, try to combine something automatic, like folding laundry, with something that requires more focus, like having a conversation.
  • Use the "20-minute rule." Instead of constantly switching between tasks, try to fully devote your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the other.
  • Batch your tasks. If you're having trouble resisting the urge to check your email or engage in another distracting task, schedule a set time in your day to tackle it. By batching similar tasks together and setting a time to handle them, you can free your mind up to focus on something else.
  • Limit distractions. This may mean seeking out a quieter place to work, switching your phone off, and turning off notifications and alarms.
  • Practice mindfulness. Adding mindfulness to your daily routine may help you notice the times when you're multitasking. Mindfulness can also improve your ability to focus and pay attention to one thing at a time.

Working on one task at a time may help you become more productive and it may make each task more enjoyable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is multitasking bad for your health?

Yes, it can be. Multitasking may reduce your ability to focus, increase feelings of stress, and exacerbate impulsiveness. It can also worsen your performance at work or school, which can lead to further negative feelings and anxiety.

What does it mean if someone has trouble multitasking?

It means that, like most of us, their brain isn't wired to work on multiple complex tasks simultaneously. We perform much better when we focus fully on one thing at a time.

Should I add multitasking as a skill on my resume?

You should consider whether or not you're really able to multitask before adding it to your resume. We have a tendency to overestimate our ability to multitask, and even people who think they're skilled in this area often make mistakes or work inefficiently.

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