The Myth of Multitasking: How Focusing on One Task at a Time Boosts Productivity
By Toni Buffa | Published October 11, 2023
Multitasking may make it seem like you’re being more productive, jumping from project to project and juggling multiple priorities at once. You feel you can do it all, meeting all of the demands on your time and brainpower at once.
The reality is that multitasking is a myth and does not help us get more done. In fact, research shows that multitasking tasks our brain, requires significant recovery time and can slow us down, making it more difficult to complete all our projects.
Instead of multitasking, it’s best to take a singular focus, committing our minds to completing one thing at a time.
The Myth of Multitasking
Multitasking is the act of completing two or more tasks concurrently. In practice, it’s frequently shown to be the switching between tasks repeatedly or starting one task but leaving it unfinished to work on another.
For busy professionals, multitasking may appear to be the mandate or norm in the workplace. Between meetings, phone calls, emails and competing deadlines, it can feel as though we must work on multiple projects at once.
However, as one notable study found, we vastly overestimate our ability to multitask. The brain, in fact, lacks the infrastructure to complete two tasks simultaneously.
Why? The brain uses building blocks and systems to complete complex tasks and for executive functioning. Those structures are not constructed to achieve multitasking. Instead, they are built to handle a singular task.
As a recent article in Discover magazine notes, “it’s far less efficient to try to do two (or more) things at once than to focus on just one task at a time.” The article, based on research by Stanford University scientists, notes that multitasking interferes with working memory, worsens school performance and can lead to long-term memory issues.
When your brain is forced to multitask, it puts multiple brain networks in competition with each other. This competition can cause interference among the networks, leading to slower processing and more mistakes.
The Stanford research focuses on “task switch costs,” or the loss of speed and accuracy that occurs whenever you change from one task to another. The research looked at media multitasking and found that subjects had more forgetfulness and attention lapses when trying to handle multiple digital media experiences concurrently.
Different Types of Multitasking
There is more than one kind of multitasking. Each has its own characteristics and has a different impact on the brain. Here are three main forms of multitasking:
- Context switching
- Attention residue
Multitasking takes on many forms. It’s the writer or designer who has Instagram and Twitter open while working. It’s the receptionist managing multiple phone calls and visitors waiting for meetings. It’s the administrator spending a morning switching between scheduling, three meetings and a soon-due update report.
While sometimes our jobs require us to multitask, it’s not always the case. Splitting attention among multiple tasks means some if not all of them will suffer.
Among the consequences of multitasking are:
- Adverse impacts on short-term memory
- Increased anxiety
- Inhibited creative thinking
- Inability to reach a state of flow to boost productivity
- More mistakes
- Less productivity
Context switching happens when you jump between tasks or projects. Your attention constantly is switching as you bounce from one task to another quickly.
Your brain simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to jump from thing to another and then back to the first. Unfortunately, workers are often forced to switch among tasks, often spending just a few minutes on one thing before shifting to another.
Attention residue is the cost of switching among tasks. When you switch from one task to another quickly, even if you’re focused on the one task at a time, you are still affected by multitasking.
Every time you switch, your brain’s executive functioning must go through two stages, both of which use up incredible amounts of energy.
The first is goal-shifting, which is when your brain decides to change from one thing to another. The other is role activation, where your brain needs to reframe the rules and context of the new task from the former one.
Tips and Strategies to Stop Multitasking
The research and science show clearly that multitasking is problematic. The challenge is how to break the habits that have long ingrained us in the habit of trying to do many things, if not everything all at once.
Here are 6 tips for stopping multitasking and becoming more productive.
1. Plan Your Day
Creating a plan for your day can have a powerful impact, giving you more control over what you’re going to do. If you don’t plan your day, the day can create a plan for you, forcing you to lose control of your schedule.
Certainly, there are times when urgent issues arise that cannot be dropped. However, when you plan your day, you know from the moment you arrive in the office what you’re going to accomplish.
Having a plan and focus for the day will also make you more resistant to distractions and allow you to focus on the tasks you’ve designated.
2. Communicate Your Needs
Office drop-ins are an inevitable reality of in-person work. While sometimes these distractions are welcome, they also contribute to multitasking, forcing you to stop what you’re working on and engage with others.
Communicating your intentions to focus on the work at hand can help avoid the seemingly small distractions and interruptions that can give you the mindspace to focus and get things done.
You can also opt to put on headphones or white noise to keep distractions at bay, especially if you work in an open-concept space.
3. Say No
Learning to say no is an important skill … and one that many of us are not very good at. Many of us think that saying yes makes us a team player. Saying yes can lead to overwork and feeling pressured to do more at once.
If saying no is too difficult, you can use other responses to deflect, such as, “Let me think about it?” or “I can let you know later.”
4. Turn Off Notifications
Your computer and phone are very effective at letting you know about new messages. Pop-up notifications and sound alerts let you know whenever a new message arrives, whether via email, text or other communication platforms. Solutions like Teams ping you whenever someone logs in or asks a question.
The instinct is to glance over at those new communications. Every. Single. Time.
The cumulative impact of these alerts is a relentless series of distractions. Instead, turn off desktop and phone notifications. Schedule time for yourself to look at email and texts a couple of times during the day.
5. Prioritize the Most Challenging Work
When you have a long to-do list, it can be daunting to determine where to begin. By starting with the most challenging tasks, you will feel a greater sense of accomplishment when they are completed. Remember, during the day, you’re likely to lose energy the later it gets, making it strategically smart to get the biggest things done sooner.
6. Schedule Breaks
When concentrating on hard work, your brain becomes taxed. You need mental and physical breaks from all that effort. Scheduling your breaks gives you something to look forward to and can help you work on one thing until it’s time for a brief rest.
At Integrify, we offer workflow solutions that keep your teams organized, focused and productive. Our no-code platform lets you automate any business process quickly. Learn more about how Integrify can help drive efficiency in your organization with a no-obligation live demonstration
Toni is a member of the Integrify marketing team and writes for the Integrify blog. Toni lives in Colorado and loves animals of all stripes.