Is Multi-Tasking An Effective Way To Work?

We’ve all done it.

Sending texts while walking or maybe talking to someone else.

Pinging off emails during work meetings.

Flicking between the 15 different tabs open in your browser.

Watching TV while talking to someone on the phone.

This habit of doing two or more activities at the same time is often something many people take pride in.

It’s touted as a skill that enables the handling of anything and everything that is thrown your way (at the same time, of course).

Unfortunately, although there are a few exceptions (less than 2.5% of us, according to studies I’ve seen), research shows the vast majority of us absolutely suck at multi-tasking – particularly those of us who think we actually rock at it.

What is multi-tasking?

First of all, just to make sure we’re on the same page when we’re talking about multi-tasking, this is the term used to describe one of three types of activity:

  1. the simultaneous execution of two or more tasks by one person (concurrent multi-tasking)
  2. the execution of a number of tasks in quick succession (sequential multi-tasking)
  3. the switching back and forth from one task to another (constant switching)

For all you etymology fans out there, multi-tasking originally referred only to “computer multi-tasking”, which is a method where multiple processes are performed during the same period of time whilst sharing the same resources.

Of interest more recently is the increasingly prevalent activity of what is being termed “media multi-tasking”, which is the concurrent use of two or more digital streams. In other words, switching rapidly through things like checking emails, sending instant messages, listening to music, reading Reddit, watching TV, flicking through different webpages, etc.

This is something that will be familiar to most of us these days, especially the younger generations for whom this has always been a way of life.

Why do we multi-task?

We multi-task for all the wrong reasons.

Most of us multi-task because of the perceived benefit of being more productive. It makes us feel like we’re getting stuff done and it makes us feel good.

Attacking lots of tasks at once is easier than sitting down and prioritizing and it may feel safer doing a little bit of everything instead of focusing all of your efforts on one thing.

We may also use multi-tasking as an excuse to avoid some of the bigger, more difficult tasks on our To-Do list.

Read more: How To Write A To-Do List – Properly! >>>

Another reason may be that we aren’t clear on our goals, so we work in this aimless kind of way, spinning numerous plates in the hope we’ll get through the day without dropping any.

Then there is the world of distractions.

We’re constantly distracted by all kinds of things vying for our attention, like social media and email.

So, if you are someone that keeps your email open all day and you don’t have a designated time to deal with them, but instead deals with them spontaneously or as and when they come in, even while you’re doing other things, then you’re multitasking.

Working in this way can prevent us from making progress towards our goals.

Why multi-tasking doesn’t work

Unless you lead the simple lifestyle of a monk, it’s likely that your world involves carrying out many different tasks each day, both family and work-related.

It would be easy to assume that multi-tasking is a great way to increase your productivity.

But research has shown that the brain is not built for multi-tasking and so does not function optimally when working in this way, especially when an element of brainpower is required.

In fact, it appears that multi-tasking actually reduces your cognitive abilities.

If you’re someone who doesn’t feel convinced that studies provide any conclusive evidence that multi-tasking is an ineffective way to complete your tasks, you can try out this fun little experiment for yourself.

Grab a sheet of paper, a pencil and open the stopwatch on your phone. On the sheet of paper, you’re going to write down “Multitasking is not effective” and below that, write a number for each letter, so in this case, 1 to 26. Write ‘1’ below ‘M’, ‘2’ below ‘u’, ‘3’ below ‘l’ and so on.

M u l t i t a s k i n g i s n o t e f f e c t i v e
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26

Before you begin, start the stopwatch and see how long it takes.

Now repeat the exercise, but this time, instead of writing out the whole sentence at once, you’re going to alternate between the letters and numbers. So, you’ll write, ‘M’ followed by ‘1’ followed by ‘u’ followed by ‘2’, followed by ‘l’ followed by ‘3’, etc, until you have completed both lines.

Unless you are one of the 2% of people that are so-called ‘supertaskers’, it is likely that the second method will take you at least 20% longer to complete than the first method.

While this is basically a silly game, it is a useful analogy for the effect that multi-tasking has on us.

Trying to split your attention between different tasks requires a great deal of concentration and effort, ultimately at the cost of mistakes, slower execution or poor results.

This is due to something called context switching.

Context switching is a term used in computing to describe the procedure a computer uses to change from one process to another while ensuring that there is no conflict between the processes.

Human context switching is the application of this principle to our brains and the switching from one task to another.

But our brains are not as efficient as computers when it comes to multi-tasking and so when doing this, we are far more prone to making errors and tasks tend to take much longer to complete.

There is also an interesting effect known as ‘attention residue’, which was coined by Sophie Leroy, currently an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington Bothell.

When you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn’t always immediately follow and a ‘residue‘ of your attention is left thinking about the previous task, so it makes it more difficult to focus fully on the new task.

This is not a good thing when it comes to productivity and managing your time efficiently.

Stop multi-tasking
Image by John Matychuk

How to stop multi-tasking

Always try to focus on one task at a time, in other words, mono-task, don’t multi-task. This is, of course, easier said than done, but there are a number of techniques you can use that will help you to limit how often you multi-task, which we’ll look at next.

1. Prioritize

Knowing how to prioritize your tasks will enable you to identify the big, high-value activities in your life and highlight those that are a waste of time.

Read this post to learn the best way to prioritize your tasks.

2. Use a schedule

If you schedule your time properly you should be able to protect your time more effectively to focus pro-actively on individual tasks, rather than get caught up in reactive tasks that get thrown your way.

Read more: How To Create A Schedule >>>

3. Use time blocking

Time blocking is a way of scheduling your day by batching tasks of a similar nature or working on specific activities by theme.

Read more: How To Use Time Blocking >>>

4. Use Inbox Zero

There is a technique known as Inbox Zero that is an excellent way to remove the constant distraction of email, which is a common task most people end up doing in parallel with other, more important tasks.

I have been using this method for a while now to great effect.

Read this post to learn about how to use Inbox Zero to manage your email and your time more efficiently.

5. Use the Pomodoro Technique

This is a way to really commit to focusing on one task in a very disciplined manner. I adopted this quite early on as a “student of time management” and find that it works very well for computer-based and writing-related tasks.

If the Pomodoro Technique is new to you, you should check out this post, which outlines exactly how to use it.

6. Use website blocking

Blocking sites that you know are a source of distraction for you will stop you from multi-tasking distracting activities.

I have reviewed some good website blockers in this post: “How To Deal With Internet Distractions

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

The message here is: mono-task.

Multi-tasking can make all tasks seem equally important when in actual fact, we should be focusing on the one thing that is the most important and urgent first.

Attack the one thing that will contribute the most towards achieving our goals and worry about the rest only when that has been completed.

There will be times in life when multi-tasking seems like the only way, for example when you’re a parent.

While, of course, it is entirely possible to do more than one thing at once, the fact is, you’ll still get more done more quickly if you plan and focus on one thing at a time whenever you possibly can.


If you’re interested in the research, here are various studies and articles of interest.

  1. Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks
  2. Multi-tasking splits the brain
  3. Training refines brain representations for multitasking
  4. Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers
  5. Minds and brains of media multitaskers: Current findings and future directions
  6. Cell-phone use diminishes self-awareness of impaired driving
  7. Executive Control of Cognitive Control in Task Switching
  8. Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex
  9. I want to media multitask and I want to do it now: Individual differences in media multitasking predict delay of gratification and system-1 thinking
  10. Outliers? – Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability
  11. “Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness”: Managing Multiple Working Spheres

[Featured image credit: pxhere]

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