Why Everything You Know About Multitasking Is A Lie
In a world that’s hustling harder than ever before, mastering the juggle is prime social currency; proud multitaskers boast of their plate-balancing skills in conversation, via social media posts and even on their CVs. But according to leading productivity experts and behavioural scientists, multitasking isn’t a must-do, it’s a con. So, what now?
It seems apt that when you search ‘multitasking’, most Google images show suited people behind desks, doctored to have six arms, a different item in each hand: phone, pen, mug, Rolodex, calculator, wall clock. It shows just how dated the idea of multitasking is, and yet we’re all still doing it, thinking we’ll reach an end goal more quickly and with less effort.
The idea of multitasking came about in the 1960s, in reference to using a single computer to carry out two or more tasks simultaneously. Later came the gendered tropes of women as natural multitaskers, wired to deftly balance the socially constructed juggle of running a household, caring for others, having a paid job, and contributing to the wider community. But from as early as the mid-’90s, scientists have known, and shown, that not only does the practice of multitasking negatively impact efficiency, but the way it erodes your brain’s capacity means it increases the mental overwhelm of everyday life.
Dr Alan Barnard, a decision scientist and CEO of Goldratt Research Labs, explains how multitasking overloads cognitive capacity. “Our studies have found that when someone multitasks three projects, even if they plan a reasonable buffer when setting a deadline, they don’t deliver any on time because of the time and mental focus lost when switching back and forth between the projects.” Your brain essentially has to recalibrate with every switch. “Additionally, they felt completely overwhelmed and made more mistakes than if they performed the projects one at a time,” he adds.
Generally, this cost is much greater for women. “The more decisions you make, the quicker you become cognitively overloaded earlier in the day; you have limited capacity left, you avoid making decisions, and go for the lowest-risk option if you do happen to make a choice,” explains Dr Barnard. “Women on average make many more decisions every day than men, partly because they feel more responsible for everyone around them, so the cognitive overload is greater.” No wonder, then, that so many of us feel overwhelmed by daily life before we even consider the curveballs that may be thrown our way.
Often, it’s the simple changes that can shift the dial from overwhelm to ease – so how to consciously move towards a life better spent single-tasking?
Pick your priority Making a to-do list is only half the job – the power is in prioritising those tasks, from most important/urgent downwards. Then focus on each one, in turn. As Dr Barnard says, “If everything is given equal priority, you’re drawn to multitask, and every task suffers.”
Go big in the morning Your cognitive capacity (that is, your brain power) is at its highest in the morning, so work with your brain rather than against it; do your most challenging or creative tasks earlier in the day.
Curate your environment Is your space set up to support your mission to nix multitasking? Maybe it’s leaving your phone in another room while you tackle specific tasks, closing certain computer tabs while you work, or making sure you’re meeting your basic needs of water, nutritious snacks and loo breaks to help you focus on the matter at hand.
Listen up It may sound counterintuitive to use your phone (the classic time thief!) to help single-task, but there are apps designed to do just that. Endel plays AI-powered soundtracks engineered to help your brain focus and tune out distracting sounds and interruptions.
Victoria Joy is a qualified coach who helps people take back control of their everyday life, cutting through the overwhelm to create helpful habits and consistent routines to make life feel easier