• Scott Herring

Multitasking Sucks

Multitasking is a myth. Take it from someone who used to be admired for his ability to take on so much. Multitasking sucks.

It’s critical to understand that there is really no real multitasking in the human brain. The cerebral cortex, the brain’s “executive control”, can only pay attention to one thing at a time. As a result, your brain is rapidly switching focus from one task to another. During the switching process, multitasking creates a chemical reaction in the body: a cocktail of cortisol (my absolute nemesis), adrenaline (cool) and dopamine (yay!).

Fact: email, Facebook/Instagram and Twitter all create an unhealthy neural addiction.

A significant, growing amount of research illustrates the truth about multitasking, with noted studies coming from Harvard, Carnegie-Mellon, Michigan, and Stanford. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, said “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.” I’ll break it down so you can understand why multitasking sucks. Then I'll explain what you can do to improve productivity and quality of your work.

Multitasking Does NOT Save Time

Task switching *costs* time, which escalates over time. According to a University of Michigan study, several tenths of a second are required each time the cerbral cortext switches. Over the course of a lengthy project, this small segment of time can add up to huge inefficiencies.

In another study, Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer ran experiments with adults that found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks. The subjects lost the most time if tasks were unfamiliar or complex. For example, if you're happily writing your latest blog post when a text message comes in. Your associate's urgent text asks you to perform some analytical analysis for another project. The result is that you've completely lost the flow of writing, have to ramp up your math brain, get in flow with the analysis (hopefully until completion, although that flow could be interrupted by your mom calling), and then ultimately you return to writing. Uh, where was I? Man, this sucks.

Multitasking Leads to Errors

A key factor in multitasking is decision overload. Multitasking entails lots of small decisions, which ultimately leads to fatigue and stress. In their seminal book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, Dr. Paul Hammerness & Margaret Moore explain how multitasking increases the chances of making mistakes and missing important cues and information.

Looking at the chemical analysis, multitasking has been linked to an increase in production of adrenaline. Adrenaline can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology at Gresham College in London, found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, when you know an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than smoking marijuana. It's like pineapple express laced with cortisol: dumbs you down and makes your day suck.

Multitasking Weakens Our Ability to Learn & Create

Multitaskers retain less information in working memory, which hinders problem solving and creativity. Stanford researchers found that attempting to learn while multitasking causes new information to travel to the wrong part of the brain. For example, if you do research while watching TV, the information from studying goes into the striatum, the brain region that stores new procedures and skills, rather than facts and ideas. Without TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, which organizes it for easy retrieval. The more we multitask, the worse we are at sorting & storing information. Multitasking also makes us less creative. If you can’t focus, new ideas can’t flow. Your blog posts will suck.

Multitasking Reduces Our Long-Term Ability to Focus

Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. It effectively rewards the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation (_Squirrel!). When we multitask all the time, we literally change the pathways in our brains. The consequence, according to Stanford research, is that sustaining your attention becomes impossible.

“If we [multitask] all the time — brains are remarkably plastic, remarkably adaptable,” Clifford Nass said. “We train our brains to a new way of thinking. And then when we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”

If you've been around people who are long-term multitaskers, you've probably noticed they seem to focus on the wrong things and skip around. It's annoying enough that you may think they suck.

Multitasking Creates Stress

Multitasking has been linked to an increase in production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure and heart damage. Cortisol is the fuel of burnout. Your blog will suck less if you have no stress.

Multitasking Sucks: How to Stop

1. Prioritize.

Each day, prepare a short goal list for the day and prioritize tasks in relation to your most important goals.

2. Control your environment.

Work in a place you can focus. Avoid people who might needlessly interrupt or distract you.

3. Avoid distractions.

Don’t use apps or keep windows open that are not necessary for the task at hand, especially email, social media, mobile texting and extraneous websites.

4. Start important tasks early.

Only move forward on your task list if you complete or reach a stopping point. If you run out of time, leave open tasks for another day.

5. Mix and match tasks.

If you need to do two things at once, pair autopilot tasks with simple thought processes. For example, you can talk on the phone and make a sandwich, or take a walk and brainstorm a new idea.

Additional Reading

The definitive author in this arena is Cal Newport. His book Deep Work created a productivity movement upon its release. He followed it up with Digital Minimalism, which shares what his readers taught him after Deep Work.


Hopefully you weren't multitasking while you read this. Here's a smart task switch, though...

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