Multitasking is often seen as a skill that is essential in bossing life. We pride ourselves on the ability to juggle multiple things at once. But the human ability to multitask is actually a myth. The term was born when computers were created to do multiple things at once, and we transferred the saying to human behaviour.
In truth, the human brain can only think of one or two thoughts at once. Humans are single minded - we cannot think or do more than one thing at the same time. “But I can clean the house, whilst taking a call and keeping an eye on the dog” we hear you say. Incorrect. Your brain actually switches between tasks very quickly, which makes you feel like you can do two things at once. When actually, your brain is quickly shifting focus from one thing to another.
It’s been proven by heavy scientific literature, that multitasking actually reduces your focus, productivity and creativity. And it does this in four ways.
1. You waste brain power switching between tasks
With each shift in task, your brain has to reset and refocus. You have to think “what was I doing” and then start again where you left off. This mini refocus drains brainpower and ultimately slows us down on each task. This is commonly known as the ‘switch cost effect’ and can decrease your productivity by up to 40%.
“Your brain has to reconfigure, when your brain goes from one task to another..and your performance drops. You’re slower” Professor Earl Miller
And yes, checking a text is classed as task. Quickly looking at a text for a few seconds splits your attention and it can take up to 23 minutes for you to properly refocus again. A study by Hewlett Packard found that students who received texts and emails had a 10 point reduction in their IQ vs when they had no notifications or phones present. That’s a considerable drop in IQ, from an action many of us wouldn’t class as a ‘task’.
2. You make more mistakes
Trying to reconfigure your thoughts or actions each time you switch between tasks also opens you up for more error. Your brain has to backtrack and course correct when you reengage with a task and this means you’re more prone to making mistakes. You’re not entering deep thinking mode but rather tracking back and forth on a more surface level.
“Instead of spending critical time deep thinking, your thinking is more superficial as you’re spending a lot of time correcting errors and backtracking” Professor Earl Miller, Neuroscientist
3. You give your brain no space for creative thinking
For your brain to be creative, it needs space. You thinking two ways: analytical and insight. Insight is when you are not actively thinking about a problem: your subconscious connects existing thoughts together that you may not have looped together before. This is why you tend to get your best ideas in the shower.
When you multitask, you’re overloading your brain and you don’t give it the space to think creatively which is a long term drain on your creative thinking and problem solving.
4. You have less memory of your tasks
When you’re completing tasks quickly and diverting your attention between multiple focuses, you’re less likely to remember the details of the tasks you completed. This is what Johann Hari calls the ‘Diminished Memory Effect’. Some studies have found that you remember and learn less due to a lower mental capacity to convert experiences into memories.
“If you switch a lot, evidence suggests you will be slower, you’ll make more mistakes, you’ll be less creative and you’ll remember less of what you do” Johann Hari, Stolen Focus
On average, we get distracted every 3 minutes and switch our focus so often in a day that we’re unable to work at our full potential. To avoid the negative effects of multitasking, it’s important to focus on one task at a time. This means setting aside distractions like email, social media, and phone calls while we work on important tasks. It also means taking breaks and allowing ourselves time to recharge our mental batteries. By focusing on one task at a time, we can increase our productivity and get more done in less time.