Is Multitasking an Effective Time-Management Strategy? 7 Research-Based Facts
What Is Multitasking?
Multitasking is an apparent ability to perform more than one task over a short period of time.
Examples of multitasking at home and on the job:
- talking on the phone while checking your emails on the computer
- teaching a lesson while managing student behavior
- greeting patients, answering the phone, and scheduling appointments in a medical office
- taking orders while serving drinks and food to the appropriate tables in a restaurant
- helping your child with homework while you are cooking dinner
- reading a magazine while listening to music
Is Multitasking an Efficient Time-Management Strategy?
Our culture places great value on multitasking and on a person’s multitasking abilities. This is particularly seen in our work environments. Employers usually want employees with strong multitasking skills, and employees often feel compelled to constantly try to improve their competence at juggling multiple projects.
Multitasking is commonly perceived as an effective time management strategy: When employees multitask, more work gets done.
But is multitasking really an efficient use of time? Is it possible to multitask successfully? And, more importantly, is multitasking good or harmful to your health?
Contrary to popular opinion, research shows that multitasking is not an effective time management strategy and is bad for your health.
What Does Research Say About Multitasking?
- Your brain is not designed to focus on more than one task at a time.
- Multitasking causes you to waste time.
- It elevates your stress level which can lead to serious health problems.
- Multitasking impairs your cognitive ability.
- It kills your creativity.
- It hurts your relationships.
- Multitasking can lead to depression.
1. Your brain is not designed to focus on more than one task at a time.
When you do two jobs at once, your brain jumps from one job to the other, back and forth; it is unable to fully focus on both jobs at once.
For example, if you answer a phone call from a client while at the same finishing up a power point presentation on your computer, it is impossible for your brain to be fully engaged in both the phone conversation and the power point presentation.
To fully attend to one of the two tasks, the other task must be sacrificed; your brain cannot fully attend to both tasks simultaneously.
2. Multitasking causes you to waste time.
It leads to loss of productivity. Each time your brain has to switch gears jumping from one task to the next, it loses momentum which leads to decreased efficiency. In other words, you're wasting time and you’re not as productive as you would be if you were to focus on one job at a time.
And since your brain isn’t wired to do more than one thing at a time, multitasking results in an increase in errors. Sound familiar?
It's more efficient to carry one task out to its completion, and then move on to the next task.
Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.— Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D and author
3. It elevates your stress level which can lead to serious health problems.
Ever wonder why your brain seems to hurt when you’re trying to do multiple tasks simultaneously? Constantly jumping from one task to another while attempting to complete several different projects overloads your brain.
Multitasking at high rates also increases levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone in your body. Constant stress can, in turn, lead to serious health issues such as chronic fatigue and Addison’s disease.
Common symptoms of elevated levels of cortisol include exhaustion, sleeplessness, body aches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, and high levels of anxiety which may result in panic attacks.
Why the Human Brain Can't Multitask
4. Multitasking impairs your cognitive ability.
Multitasking has a negative impact on your ability to think, reason, and to recognize and solve problems.
Because there’s less cognitive power focused on individual tasks, your intelligence quotient (IQ) decreases while multitasking. So if you ever feel like multitasking is making you dumber, it’s because it is!
In addition, increased levels of cortisol (caused by trying to handle multiple tasks at once) can damage the memory region of the brain.
It has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times longer to recognize new things so you're not saving time; multitasking actually costs time. You also lose time because you often make mistakes.— Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and bestselling author
5. It kills your creativity.
The amount of energy and focus multitasking sucks up diminishes our ability to think creatively, such as to come up with original ideas and even to daydream.
Multitasking also impedes our ability to identify and produce solutions to problems.
Trying to focus on multiple projects and trying to attend to ongoing interruptions, such as the phone ringing and the influx of email and text messages, disrupts the creative process the brain is fully able to engage in when allowed to focus on one task at a time.
6. It hurts your relationships.
The stress and frustration associated with multitasking inevitably impacts your personal relationships.
Ever feel like your personality changes —like you become Jekyll & Hyde—when forced to multitask? Being short, rude, forgetful of important dates such as your wedding anniversary, and yelling at others are often signs of extreme stress brought on by multitasking.
Allowing technology in your home to compete with together time with your spouse or significant other can cause tension and ultimately result in broken relationships. Face it, you can't engage in a meaningful conversation while checking your text and email messages every 30 seconds.
The popular notion that women are better multitaskers than men is a fallacy. Research shows that gender differences in one’s ability to multitask are minor and inconsistent.
7. Multitasking can lead to depression.
The dissatisfaction and frustration that result from feeling like you’re being spread too thin and unable to do anything at a high quality can result in depression.
We all want a sense of fulfillment in our daily work—the peace that comes with knowing we’re putting our talents and skills to good use—and that feeling isn’t brought on by the ongoing, frantic attempt to juggle multiple projects on our plate.
In addition, treating others rudely due to the stress associated with multitasking can lead to further depression as we realize we act in ways that aren’t consistent with our core values.
The Bottom Line
The notion that multitasking is an efficient time management strategy is a myth. Our brains are wired for focusing on one task at a time. Multitasking is a counterproductive use of time and energy, and often ends up costing us our health, relationships, and ultimately even our jobs.
Does your job require a high amount of multitasking?
- Sandra Bond Chapman, "Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter," Forbes. May 8, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Wilkipedia.org. Human multitasking. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Matthew Toren, "5 Simple Cures to Work Smarter and Save Time," Entrepeneur. April 3, 2014. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- William Ballard, "The Fallacy of Multitasking," Entrepeneur. January 20, 2017. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Jessica Kleiman, "How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work), Forbes. January 15, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Amanda MacMillan, "12 Reasons to Stop Multitasking Now!," Health. July 14, 2016. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Mayo Clinic, "Cushing syndrome," Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Joseph Pritchard, "What Are Symptoms of Too Much Cortisol in the Body?" Livestrong. October 3, 2017. Accessed July 1, 2018.
- Kendra Cherry, "Multitasking: How It Affects Productivity and Brain Health," verywellmind. March 12, 2018. Accessed July 1, 2018.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Geri McClymont