The human brain cannot multitask. Worse than that: trying to do so actually makes you less productive.
It’s the boast of many a corporate executive that they’re excellent multitaskers. They can catch up on emails during meetings, and make decisions on multiple different subjects within seconds of each other. They can manage a screen full of windows while constantly glancing at their phone. This is a characteristic of the successful modern executive, they claim, and a prerequisite for doing business well in the digital age.
They’re wrong. It’s a fallacy… and we have the science to prove it. When we perceive ourselves as multitasking, we’re actually switching rapidly from one task to another, rather than working on two or more things simultaneously. We’ve known for over a decade that we can’t truly multitask, and that we pay a price for trying to do so. The process has two stages:
- Goal shifting – deciding that you want to do one thing instead of another.
- Rule activation – turning off the cognitive processes for the task you were doing, and switching on the processes for the new one.
There’s clearly a cost in both energy and time to these two steps, which means you lose working time, and erode your performance over the course of the day, because you’re expending more energy on task switching than you would do if you worked one task through to completion before moving onto another one. You’re not multitasking – you’re just doing several things inefficiently.
Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University went further in an NPR discussion in 2010, saying:
“[…] the people who multitask most frequently think they’re actually the best at it, and in fact, they’re the worst at it. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests that the people who multitask the most actually are the least capable of any important aspect of multitasking.”
This damning evidence actually emerged from a 2009 study on heavy multitaskers at Stanford University. The researchers set out to find what set them aside from the rest of us, who are no good at multitasking. The results were not what they were expecting: “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author and a researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.
Indeed, for all the pride and confidence in their multitasking abilities shown by the people in the study, they were actually desperately inefficient, and with almost no focus to speak of.
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”
What we call multitasking is, in effect, a massive failure of our brain’s ability to filter, process and prioritise incoming information, so we jump wildly from subject to subject like a cat chasing a laser pointer beam. Every jump costs us time and energy. We’re in a state of constant distraction, getting very little done and tiring ourselves out to very little purpose. And we celebrate this as a working virtue…
So, why on earth do we try to multitask? As ever, with the human brain, it’s a combination of factors. The stress of modern living means that multiple incoming demands for our attention often arrive at once, especially as we’re surrounded by multiple electronic devices which bleep, ping, ring or pop up notifications to demand our attention. Without practicing self-control, or making a conscious effort to limit the way these distractions can get to you, we end up letting ourselves be forced into a false multitasking mode by outside influences. More tellingly, perhaps, this illusory multitasking is, in fact, extremely emotionally satisfying.
Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, lead a study exploring this, which was published in the Journal of Communication. Wang found:
“[…] they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive – they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”
In short, their studies showed that people tended to attempt multitasking when they were approaching cognitively challenging tasks – like studying – and pair the difficult task with easier ones, like checking email, or continuing an instant message conversation. The result is that you feel more emotionally stimulated, and are triggering your pleasure centers, but then the brain misallocates the emotional pleasure received from the other tasks as being productivity – even as your effectiveness declines. That feeling is addictive. “We found what we call a dynamical feedback loop. If you multitask today, you’re likely to do so again tomorrow, further strengthening the behaviour over time,” Wang said.
The ability to do “true” multitasking well – to switch between different tasks quickly, with minimal loss of focus and cerebral energy – is actually critical for some jobs. The neuroscience backs this up to some degree. Those two stages of multitasking – goal switching and rule activation – actually become less time and energy-hungry the more often you do them in the same fashion, as long as you restrict yourself to a limited set of frequently executed tasks. We can train ourselves to be better at very specific types of rapid task switching – when it’s an absolute necessity.
For the rest of us, though, it’s far better to step away from that tempting illusion and get really good at doing one thing at a time really well. Try experimenting with your working focus today and you’ll see the benefit in the form of a huge productivity boost before you know it.
Image credit: ryantron
This is is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with fresh approaches to productivity, collaboration and technology adoption, and the latest ideas from business leaders and innovators on creativity, leadership and management. To download our latest ebook on designing your day, visit http://nokia.ly/DYDebook, and to find out more about Nokia for Business visit http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/mobile/business/lumia-for-business/