Think about multitasking, and you might envision those stock photos of suit-clad office workers with extra sets of arms juggling multiple phones, laptops, coffee cups, and, for some mysterious reason, large clocks. If you’ve been around for awhile, you probably remember when multitasking was considered a good thing – what boss wouldn’t want an administrative assistant who could take phone calls while doing the filing with one hand and opening the mail with the other? But these days, as scientific research increasingly suggests that our brains are not capable of pursuing multiple goals at one time, multitasking is seen as less of a skill, and more of an inefficient habit to avoid. Ironically – or fittingly, depending on your point of view – now that we all live with dozens of tabs open on our computers, smartphones practically glued to our hands, and a podcast streaming nonstop through our headphones, we’re supposed to learn how to monotask (i.e., do one thing at a time) all over again.
But is concentrating on one task at a time really the best way to get things done? Is multitasking actually bad? And what is multitasking, really – does the concept only apply to the time we spend at work, or does knitting while watching TV count? Here’s what you need to know about multitasking: when it’s helpful, when it’s harmful, and how you can stop multitasking when it’s not doing you any good.
What is Multitasking?
Multitasking has been around as long as humans have; ancient people, too, had to gather food while watching their children, or look out for predators while tending the fire. But the word multitasking first appeared in the 1960s, to describe how computers process multiple tasks simultaneously. A few decades later, it became the common way to talk about humans who could do, or wished they could do, what those early CPUs could – work on two or more mental problems at the same time. (Depending on your computer, you might argue that a CPU isn’t necessarily great at it either.)
That very notion, however, is somewhat of a myth. When we talk on the phone while typing an email, we’re not truly doing both tasks at the same time. Our brains are actually “task-switching,” or shifting attention very quickly between one task and the other.
And we can’t switch between very many tasks, either. One study found that the brain is capable of handling it when we try to do two things simultaneously, but not three.
Why is Multitasking Bad?
For one thing, it can make you less productive and waste a good part of your day. That’s because all that switching between tasks can add up – one scientist reported that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
It can also make you, well, kind of stupid. In fact, multitasking can lower your IQ by ten points – that’s more pronounced than the effects of smoking marijuana or staying up all night.
And worse than that, it might be permanently bad for your brain – one study indicated a correlation between certain multitasking behaviors and brain damage. (Importantly, this study did not determine causation, but whether watching TV and YouTube simultaneously is the cause of brain damage or the result of it, it’s probably not the healthiest way to spend your time.)
It can also jeopardize your physical safety, and put others around you at risk. People who listened to spoken sentences while virtually driving a car experienced a 37% decrease in activity in the part of the brain that handles spatial processing – a finding that might scare you into putting down the cellphone even if those scolding highway billboards do not. And if your job involves dangerous equipment or caring for other people, the mistakes you make as you try to take on too many tasks could be deadly.
How to Stop Multitasking
In addition to the more serious potential consequences of multitasking, trying to balance too many things at once can simply make you feel scatterbrained and unorganized. At times, there’s a fine line between multitasking and distraction. It’s one thing to write while listening to music; it’s another to try to write while stopping every ten minutes sing along with your music, or check your email and justify it by telling yourself that answering emails is necessary and productive too. So how do you pull back and return to monotasking when you know that’s the only way to get something done?
- One method is to develop a reliable and personalized daily routine. By figuring out what tasks you need to get done every day, and scheduling them for yourself in a consistent order, you eliminate time spent deciding what to do when. You also cut out the temptation to do everything at once, because each individual task has its own time slot. Creating a daily routine and practicing sticking to that routine will also help you learn about how and when you work best. If you multitask because you feel overloaded with work or chores, realizing that you think best in the morning or that you get distracted more easily when you’ve had less than eight hours sleep will bring some calm to the chaos of your day. And having a routine can also help you reach your goals by building up the regular habits necessary for longer-term accomplishments – including the goal of concentrating on one thing at a time.
- Another tip is to use a timer. If you’re nervous about concentrating on just one thing for a whole afternoon, or even a whole hour, give yourself permission to switch to another task after 20 or 30 minutes, when your alarm goes off. Sometimes, it’s easier to focus when you know you don’t have to focus forever, and you may find that when the time is up, you’re actually enjoying the work and don’t mind continuing for a while.
- If you need to, physically remove distractions while you work on a single task. Put your phone in a drawer on the other side of the room, or work in the library rather than on your couch. Block yourself from the internet for a period of time. (Of course, there are apps for this.) Turn off ringers, alert noises from texts and emails, and anything else that might beep or buzz and lead you astray.
- Block off time for relaxation and special activities outside of your normal daily and weekly routines. Sometimes, when you feel compelled do four things at once and they all seem equally pressing, what you really need is some time off to rest. Setting a day or two (or more, if possible) aside for a mental or physical vacation can help you to get inspired, prioritize your tasks, and focus on the most important task first when you return to work.
- Set small, concrete goals for each day, and complete them one at a time. “Write a 2,000 word article on Monday” is a daunting goal, and one that would lead most people into the familiar trap of writing while checking messages, working on other projects, or cleaning the kitchen. But “write the first 500 words of this article on Monday” is doable and allows you to move on to another task after a few hours. This way, you can get used to monotasking without feeling the pressure to completely finish one thing before moving on to another.
- Consider eliminating some tasks altogether. If you’re doing everything all at once not because you really believe in multitasking but because you feel overwhelmed by your massive to-do list, the problem might be that you’re over-committed. Quitting or delegating a task isn’t always possible for everyone, but don’t just assume you can’t do it without thinking it through first.
- Finally, if you haven’t already, declutter your space. Clutter is distracting, even if that clutter is made up of pretty objects; a tantalizing array of cute decorations on your desk can tempt you away from the task you’re trying to focus on. If your clutter is more of the “unread mail and assorted random junk” variety, that’s even worse. Knowing that you have chores you should be doing, whether or not you can see them out of the corner of your eye, can really sap your mental energy or provide the perfect excuse for procrastination.
Is Multitasking Ever Good?
Despite all the negatives associated with multitasking, some forms of it, in some situations, can be beneficial and enjoyable. In general, that happens when you combine dissimilar tasks that don’t involve the same part of your brain. For example, although you’d almost certainly have great difficulty concentrating if you tried to read a book and listen to a lecture at the same time, reading a book can keep you entertained while you’re commuting on the train or walking on the treadmill. And listening to music while doing chores at home can keep you motivated and focused on the task at hand. This sort of multitasking can help you stay fit, make your daily life more pleasant, and make boring tasks feel more fun. What’s more, some research suggests that this type of distraction can make people more efficient, possibly because anticipating the extra tasks stimulates the brain.
Ultimately, how often you prefer to multitask, and in what areas of your life you do it, is up to you. Unsurprisingly, people’s preferences vary. For a small segment of the population, the roughly 2%, known as supertaskers, performance is not affected by task-switching at all. If you’re in that group, you can go ahead and do your data entry while you’re on a conference call. (Though be aware that those who study supertaskers say that people who think they’re supertaskers are often the worst at doing two things at once.) But even if you’re not a supertasker, you may prefer to keep juggling multiple activities. If it’s not endangering anyone or affecting your performance or happiness, you might as well keep on watching the news on three different channels while you do your homework. Though multitasking may currently be out of favor, continued innovations in new, addictive technology means it’s not about to go away anytime soon.
(This is a guest post by Johnna Kaplan)