People multitask because they think they’re getting more done. It makes sense at first glance, working hard on two things at once is better than one, right? As it turns out multitasking actually makes you significantly less productive and is associated with a number of negative health outcomes.
You Actually Can’t Multitask
Why doesn’t multitasking work? As it turns out, our brains can only really focus on thing at a time. When we think we’re multitasking, our brains are actually rapidly switching attention back and forth between the tasks. And there’s a cost to the rapid switching. One study found that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%! Another study found that multitasking lowered participants’ IQs greater than losing a nights sleep or smoking marijuana! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Yet another study found that chronic multi-taskers had less gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control. Perhaps not surprisingly then, multitasking has also been tied with anxiety and depression.
Maybe Some People Can Multitask?
I know what you’re thinking… maybe the average person can’t multitask, but I can! A study out of Stanford tested to see if some individuals could in fact multitask successfully. They put a group of participants who multitask often and claimed to be very successful at it and a group who rarely multitask through a series of tests. The researchers expected the multi-taskers to outperform the single-taskers on at least one variable, but it turned out that the multi-taskers were worse at every task: filtering out irrelevant information, organizing their memories and switching from one task to another.
Multitasking doesn’t work. The better answer is single-tasking: focusing on one task at a time. So, instead of switching back and forth between emails, talking on the phone and writing an article, focus fully on one at a time. You’ll actually get done faster and do a better job on each!