How Multitasking Slows Your Brain and Kills Your Productivity

Focus on one task at a time for best results.

It wasn’t long ago when people were consistently praised for multitasking– the parent who, in one night, juggles children’s homework, their own professional work, the laundry, and spinning classes. Or the ultra-connected marketing manager who, in an hour, answers 10 emails, works on a sales pitch, grabs a coffee, and books a plane ticket for a trade show. Both sound like veritable productivity masters. But the mental toll caused by multitasking has been proven to far outweigh peoples’ ability to simultaneously juggle tasks.

Multitasking, in fact, is multifaceted. The term can be defined as performing two or more tasks at the same time, or constantly switching from one thing to another. It can also be described as performing numerous tasks in rapid succession– like sending a tweet, then writing an email, then making a call, then checking your messages, then finishing your presentation. Sound familiar?

You are definitely not the only person guilty of multitasking. In fact, studies show that only 2% of people are truly effective multitaskers. For the remaining 98%, if you don’t take the proper precautions (you’ll be glad to hear that there are many apps for that) multitasking can, and will, get the best of you.

Here are some ways multitasking severely affects your ability to get things done:

1) Significantly reduces productivity

Physiologically, multitasking is managed in the brain by mental executive functions which control cognitive processes and determine when, how, and in what order tasks are executed. These cognitive functions have two stages: goal shifting (deciding which task to do), and role activation (changing from one task to another). While the time spent in the role activation stage may be minimal, it quickly adds up when you continually switch back and forth. And once you switch from one task to another, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the original task.

While you may feel like you’re flying through your to-do list, trying to focus on one or more tasks at a time actually reduces your productivity by a whopping 40%. It’s equivalent to missing one night of sleep and has two-times more effect on your brain than smoking marijuana– and that’s not the end. Multitasking– for example, taking incoming calls or being distracted by email during your work day, can lower your IQ by 10 points.

2) Increases susceptibility to distractions

On average, people who regularly use computers at work are distracted every 10.5 minutes. That’s nearly 46 distractions in one, eight-hour work day. These distractions, in one study, amounted to more than 2.1 hours per day of lost productivity which results in a sum of 546 hours annually (or 22.75 days straight spent on distractions).

Writer Tim Wu from the New Yorker makes a poignant correlation to the negative influence personal computers (and therefore smartphones and tablets) can have on one’s prolonged productivity. By looking at narratives from Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac and Steve Wozniak and their meditation-like productivity style of “supreme concentration” he asks if their feats would be more difficult to accomplish today:

On the one hand, today’s computers feature programming and writing tools more powerful than anything available in the twentieth century. But, in a different way, each of these tasks would be much harder: on a modern machine, each man would face a more challenging battle with distraction. Kafka might start writing his book and then, like most lawyers, realize he’d better check e-mail; so much for “Das Urteil.” Kerouac might get caught in his Twitter feed, or start blogging about his road trip. Wozniak might have corrected an erroneous Wikipedia entry in the midst of working on Breakout, and wrecked the collaboration that later became Apple.


3) Creates a mental traffic jam

While you may be able to handle juggling minor, less mentally taxing tasks at the same time, studies demonstrate that the level of multitasking is imperative. For the subjects in this particular MIT study, “working on more projects in one time period at first increased productivity, as measured by revenue generation. But as the level of multitasking increased, the marginal benefits of additional multitasking declined — and, at a certain point, taking on still more tasks made workers less productive rather than more so.” The researchers likened this phenomenon to a traffic jam “where projects get backed up behind other projects much the way cars get stuck in traffic when there are too many on a highway at once.”

It’s clear that multitasking is a very real threat in today’s workplace, classroom, automobile, and even at home. To help combat the urge to multitask, we’ve put together a list of five tools that you can use to effectively ward off the urge to perform multiple tasks at a time, and to help prevent distractions stemming from multitasking.

5 tools and strategies that combat multitasking:

  1. The Pomodoro productivity method: This popular method is perfect for uni-tasking. Work on a task for a specific amount of time then take a break. During this time, you should write down how many times you were distracted in order to improve your concentration.
  2. Inbox Pause: If incoming emails are your biggest downfall, install Inbox Pause for Gmail. It lets you decide when to receive emails so that they don’t appear in your inbox until you’re ready.
  3. Use two computer screens: Todoist’s founder, Amir, explains how he uses two computer screens to fight procrastination, block out distractions, and to focus on tasks at hand.
  4. Anti-social: A program for Mac, Windows, and Ubuntu that blocks websites for a determined amount of time (ex: 15 minutes to eight hours). Once you activate it, you can’t turn it off– rest assured that you will not be distracted online.
  5. Schedule around your productive hours: If you know you’re most productive from 9-12, don’t schedule meetings during that time. If you tend to succumb to distractions and multitasking at lunch time, don’t schedule important, mentally-consuming tasks.

Are you guilty of multitasking? What are some tools you use to stay focused during the day? Please share with us in the comments section below!