The myth of multitasking: Research says it makes us less productive and increases mistakes

Many people multitask because they think it makes them more efficient. Research says otherwise.

Let’s face it – life can be very busy and many of us feel increasing demands on our time and attention. People often find themselves rushing through the busyness of their days moving from one meeting, project, phone call, interruption, errand and responsibility to the next. And the reality of this relentless activity and busyness can lead to feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

A common way that people respond to the pressures and demands on their time is to multitask by trying to do more than one thing at a time in order to accomplish everything that they feel they need to in a given day. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to be on the computer while they are also talking on the phone at home or in work settings. Others routinely try to have a conversation with a colleague, friend or family member while also texting, gaming or doing internet searches on their phone or another device. Others visit websites, watch videos or listen to podcasts while also writing emails or reports for school or work.

While multitasking in these ways is a very common practice, research on brain development and concentration shows that splitting our attention between more than one task can actually make us less productive, less efficient and can contribute to us making more mistakes. According to psychiatrist Edward Hallowel, M.D., part of the reason for this is that many of us are developing what he calls Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). Unlike Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which tends to be genetic and something some people are born with, ADT is brought on when our attention is constantly pulled away from the task at hand by constant and relentless distractions and interruptions to our focus. Research shows that when we allow our attention to switch back and forth by multitasking, it lowers our efficiency and productivity—particularly when we’re working on more complex tasks. It can also be dangerous when our safety is at risk (such as when we talk on the phone while driving a car.)

The bottom-line is that the benefit of multitasking is a modern day myth. While we tend to believe that we can split our attention between two things, the reality is that we are actually paying less attention to both tasks. This can contribute to feelings of frustration because we feel like we can’t concentrate or get what we want or need to get done. Multitasking reduces our capacity for remembering information so some people may become fearful that they are experiencing memory loss. Relationships can be negatively impacted because we’re not paying full attention and listening deeply to our partners, children, friends or co-workers.

In her book Real Happiness at Work, author Sharon Salzberg shares that human beings seem to be unable to multitask. She says, “Multitasking is a modern myth that contributes to low self-esteem at work, fraying our nerves, and harming our job skills as we struggle, and fail to master a skill for which the human brain is unprepared.”

While it may be impossible to stop the demands on our time and attention in today’s busy and technology-drenched world and workplaces, there are things we can do to counteract the excessive busyness, interruptions and distractions that may be affecting us in negative ways. Salzberg recommends that we become “unitaskers” rather than multitaskers. She says that it’s actually more effective to take frequent breaks while we’re focusing on one task over a sustained period of time. Relaxing our focus and taking breaks actually increases our ability to concentrate, helps us to retain information and increases our productivity. Salzberg stresses the importance of intentionally reducing how much information we are taking in at any given time and narrowing the scope of our attention so that we are focusing on one thing at a time as much as possible.  

Another way we can improve our attention and ability to concentrate is through the practice of mindfulness. When we practice mindfulness, we pay attention on purpose to the present moment with curiosity and kindness. When we notice our minds wandering, we gently bring our attention back to our breath or another singular point of focus. This gentle focus on moment-to-moment awareness is a way to intentionally cultivate attention—and research shows that the ongoing practice of mindfulness strengthens our ability to focus and concentrate.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources focused on developing emotional resilience at work and educational sessions focused on social and emotional health and wellbeing including RELAX and Stress Less with Mindfulness

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