The Little-known Disadvantages of Multitasking: It’s bad for you

The idea of multitasking is so mainstream that it’s almost considered a reasonable skill to expect of yourself and others. But in reality, there are so many disadvantages to multitasking that there’s really no point in attempting it at all. I’ve always been unable to multitask and was secretly envious of those people who seem to do it with ease. Until I read a pretty good book called The ONE Thing (by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan) and the disadvantages of multitasking was a big theme: You need to stop.

The Roots of the Concept

The idea of multitasking has its roots in the industrial revolution, when the need for increased efficiency and productivity led to the development of new technologies and methods of work. As industries began to grow and evolve, so too did the need for workers who could handle multiple tasks.

This led to the idea that individuals who could multitask were more valuable and productive than those who could not. The actual term “multitasking” was coined in the 1960’s and was originally related to a computer’s ability to quickly perform many tasks, seemingly at the same time.

However, even computers can only process one piece of code at a time, although they do so at great speed. Your brain works in exactly the same way, but not nearly as speedily. When you do two or more things at once, you’re not doing them simultaneously. You’re switching between tasks. But humans are not computers,  which means you are not nearly as efficient as you think you are.

The Research is Clear: Multitasking is an Illusion

As research progressed in the field of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, it became increasingly clear that the human brain is not designed for multitasking, not at all. Clifford Nas, a professor at Stanford University, was also always envious of multitaskers. But he took it seriously enough to do a research project to test if multitasking actually worked and if so, how it worked.

He was shocked to find that all the people who thought they were good at multitasking, turned out to be ineffective at just about everything they tried to do. The outcome of the research was clear: Doing more than one thing at once means that you don’t do any task well, and in fact, you’ll get less done overall, and it will take you more time than it should.

It’s theorised that humans evolved to oversee multiple tasks at the same time, which was necessary for survival. For example, being able to keep watch for danger while searching for food and eating it along the way, would seem a handy set of survival tactics for the early members of our species.

So you may think that because you can answer emails while talking on the phone, listen to a podcast while running, or fold laundry while watching TV, you can do more than one thing at once. But multitasking is simply an illusion.  What is actually happening is that you are switching between one task and then the other. Your attention bounces back and forth and in real life, this can result in some terrible mistakes.

Your Brain Can ONLY Focus on One Thing

According to Keller, our brains have “channels”, which handle different activities. So we can indeed process certain activities at the same time, as long as each stays in its own channel. A lot of physical actions hardly require any focus at all, either because they are being directed from a different part of our brain (like breathing), or because we do them on autopilot (like walking). So we can DO more than one thing simultaneously, but we cannot FOCUS on more than one thing.

This means that there is literally a limit to your attentional capacity. Imagine your ability to focus as a rather small pizza. Sure you can give some slices away to a different task, but there will be less left for the first task, and everyone is going to end up still being hungry.

This is fine when it’s a case of walking and talking, or listening to a podcast while you do housework, but as soon as something comes up that requires focus, it can be dangerous. If you were forced to cross an extremely busy road, or hike up a dangerous and difficult path, you wouldn’t be chatty. If there was a fire in your kitchen, you’d stop hearing your podcast. As soon as you’re doing something that requires complete focus, you stop everything else.

We understand this very well when we think of the air-traffic controller, the pilot, the surgeon, or even the dentist. How comfortable would you be if your dentist was chatting on the phone while drilling into your tooth? What would you think of your therapist checking their phone during your session? We expect nothing less than total concentration from these kinds of professionals.

Too Much To Do, Too Little Time

The modern human is seen as a multitasker and the disadvantages of multitasking aren’t even discussed. Our lives are full of distractions, and with the advent of smartphones and social media, divided attention is the norm.

We all feel the need to do too many things in the time we have, so we try to do more than one thing at once. You likely constantly check your phone while talking to other people, and as you work you listen to a constant stream of notifications from emails, texts, and social media. Piles of unfinished work pile up while you try desperately to complete any one task while doing other things simultaneously.

A Little Dopamine Boost

Interestingly, task switching can provide a boost of dopamine which is almost addictive, and what happens is that you may get bored if you don’t switch between tasks and activities. But task switching exacts a cost. And this cost increases with the complexity of each task.

The disadvantages of multitasking:

Multitasking may be Irresponsible

Research shows that being on your smartphone while driving is as irresponsible as driving under the influence. It is illegal to text and drive, and even a conversation on the phone can lead to lethal and fatal errors. For example, if you’re talking to your colleague about a design task, your inner vision is occupied and you may literally not see the vehicle braking suddenly in front of you. Until it’s too late.

Personally, if I’m trying to find my way in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, I turn off the car radio because I find it too distracting. If I answer the phone while I’m walking and it’s some kind of emergency, I stop dead. Researching this article has made me realise that I have to find a place to pull over if I need to look at something on google maps, and that I need to stop being such a chatterbox while I’m driving!

Multitasking distorts Time

Rather than save time, multitasking actually wastes time. This is because it takes time to return to the task you were busy with, and you may never find the exact place where you left off.You lose time, because every time you switch to a new task, your brain takes a while to get back on track.

What’s more, you develop a distorted sense of how long it takes to do things, because it takes you longer than it should to complete any one task.

Multitasking leads to Poor Decisions

When you multitask, you are likely to make bad choices and mistakes. People who multitask tend to make decisions based on new information over older information, rather than the quality of the information.

Or no decisions. What happens to me is that when I’m researching something I open way too many tabs and get bogged down in information overload, so I don’t make the decision at all.

Decreases Overall Productivity

Research demonstrates that multi-tasking substantially hurts your productivity – by around 40 percent. You tend to make more mistakes and the quality of your work suffers.

Negatively impacts your Ability to Focus

It negatively impacts your ability to focus. Over time, it leads to a decrease in your attention span. It actually becomes harder for you to concentrate on any one task for a prolonged period of time.

Damages your Mental Health

Multitasking has a long-term negative effect on your mental health. It leads to a feeling of constant distraction and being overwhelmed. You never fully immerse yourself in any one task, which leads to the frustrating feeling of being pulled in multiple directions. It causes more and more unnecessary stress. It makes you anxious, and over time, you become more prone to burnout and other mental health difficulties.

Damages your Relationships

It may have a negative impact on your relationships. When you are not fully present and focused on the person you are interacting with, it leads to a feeling of disconnection and can make it harder to build and maintain relationships. Further, multitasking can cause  decreased empathy, which has a negative impact on your ability to understand and connect with others.

BFB Success Fomula: How to overcome the disadvantages of multitasking

  1. Don’t do it. Stop. Change this habit and improve your life! Thanks to neuroplasticity, you can rewire your brain and improve your ability to focus with practice.
  2. Work out what really matters and give it your full focus: ONE THING at a time. Block out your time for specific tasks and activities. Don’t let anything distract you.
  3. Your work deserves your respect. Focus on one task at a time and give it proper, full attention (within it’s allocated block). This will lead to better work quality, fewer mistakes, and a feeling of accomplishment.
  4. The people in your life also deserve your respect. Focus on the person you are with and give them your full attention, even if it’s only for a short time. Block out time to spend with your loved ones. Quality is better than quantity.
  5. Your life deserves your respect. Block out your time and focus on the things that really matter to you.

Multitasking is a damaging, over-rated, misunderstood myth. See the truth and reset your brain towards better focus, one task at a time.

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