The Myth of Multitasking


You’re at your desk at home, listening to the company CEO drone on during an endless Zoom meeting. As you stifle a yawn, your laptop chimes, alerting you to an incoming email. You click to see if it’s urgent — oh, it’s just a client requesting a meeting. You check your calendar and send back some possible times. You briefly turn your attention back to the meeting, but another department is discussing something irrelevant to your work. Struggling to stay alert, you decide to play a quick game on your phone to get a much-needed dopamine rush. As the app opens and you plan your first move, you suddenly hear your manager’s voice calling your name: “Can we get your thoughts on this?”

If you’ve ever experienced such a scenario, you probably have been guilty of multitasking. Or maybe you multitask in other ways — having music or the TV on in the background while writing a report, bouncing back and forth between email and a presentation you’re working on, or scrolling social media every few minutes while reading a boring document. With many of us working from home, multitasking might even extend to child care or household chores.

Modern technology makes it easier than ever to do multiple things at once. Notifications from computer programs and cellphone apps constantly clamor for our attention. We have multiple tabs open on our web browsers and multiple programs running on our laptops, allowing us to manically jump from screen to screen. Meetings once held in a conference room, where it would be painfully obvious if someone was on their phone, are now conducted by video. We tell ourselves that multitasking makes us more efficient, even as we struggle to hold together a coherent thought amid the data streams assailing our brains from several directions.

In the 1990s, as technology made workplace multitasking more feasible, it began cropping up in resumes and job descriptions as a sought-after skill. But the term itself is a misnomer: The human brain is actually incapable of completing more than one cognitive task at a time. Instead, it rapidly switches back and forth among competing tasks, resulting in what’s known as a “switch cost,” a delay that happens when the brain stores information related to an abandoned task and redirects its attention to a new one. Numerous studies have shown people almost always take longer to complete a task and make more errors when switching tasks than when they focus on a single task at a time.

Why we multitask (and why we shouldn’t)

study of Microsoft employees conducted during the pandemic revealed multitasking during remote meetings was ubiquitous. The study examined anonymous email and cloud file activity logs, as well as journals, of almost 100,000 U.S. employees, finding that many employees did work-related tasks during meetings because — ironically — a plethora of meetings left too little time to complete their work.

Even before virtual meetings became commonplace, many employees believed multitasking made them more productive. However, research found office workers take an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions and return to their original task.

Another common misconception is that multitasking improves our performance because it allows us to look at a problem with a “fresh eye.” One study tested this idea with two tasks: a sudoku puzzle and a word search. Participants were required to either work on the tasks consecutively, switch tasks every four minutes, or choose when to alternate between the two tasks. Both multitasking groups scored substantially lower on the tasks than the group that worked on the puzzles consecutively. According to the researchers, the costs of switching (having to recall the rules, details, and steps taken so far) outweigh any benefits of a “fresh eye.”

Evidence also indicates that chronic multitaskers perform worse in many cognitive tasks. According to psychologist Clifford Nass, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.”

The tricky thing is while you may recognize the downfalls of multitasking, it can be difficult to quit because the practice is so ingrained in our society. Here are some tips for breaking the habit.

Realize you’re not good at it

You might be thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me — I’m a naturally good multitasker.” And you’re not alone: A survey found 93% of people say they can multitask better than or as well as the average person. Along with its other downsides, multitasking appears to impair metacognition, our ability to monitor our own performance on a task. So multitasking has the potential to reduce our performance while making us think we’re doing just fine. This can be dangerous in certain situations, such as driving while texting.

Apply the 20-minute rule

Develop the self-discipline to laser focus on a single task for 20 minutes. Turn off social media and other notifications, put your cellphone out of sight, and close windows on your computer that aren’t related to the task at hand. Instead of obsessively checking email hundreds of times a day, for example, devote 20 minutes at the beginning and end of your day for this task. When you complete your 20 minutes, take a quick break, and then continue the same task or switch to another for 20 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much more you can accomplish in 20-minute increments without frenetically hopping from task to task.

Plan smarter meetings

The study of Microsoft employees found meeting characteristics such as size, length, time of day, and type correlated with the extent people multitask.

According to their findings, to keep employees focused and engaged, managers should make meetings as short and as small as possible. If the meeting can be avoided altogether and handled with an email or team chat, all the better. Avoid scheduling important meetings for the morning, when employees are more likely to multitask, coinciding with peak email usage as people start their day. For long or large meetings, consider circulating an agenda with times that different topics will be discussed so employees can work on other things during discussions irrelevant to them. The researchers also suggest introducing a convention in which having your camera on implies full attention, whereas a camera off denotes the person is multitasking.

Leaders should also encourage active participation during the meeting by, for example, asking specific team members questions. If you’re an employee, take notes to stay engaged and ask questions and contribute ideas whenever possible.

If you must multitask …

Let’s face it; some tasks are so boring that it just makes life more enjoyable to have something else going on in the background, even if the task takes longer or requires more error checking. If you’re going to multitask at work, though, choose your tasks wisely.

A theory called threaded cognition might help predict when multitasking is the most detrimental to productivity. According to this theory, the brain is a central procedural resource that coordinates perceptual (e.g., vision or hearing) and motor (e.g., eye or hand movements) resources. Conflicts (i.e., switch costs) arise when multiple tasks require the same resource or attention from the central procedural resource at the same time. That’s why it’s easier to listen to music than watch TV while writing — you can keep your eyes on the computer screen. However, thinking about the song lyrics while trying to compose your next sentence will result in delays.

Ultimately, focusing on one task will save time, improve accuracy, and reduce stress. And it will avoid that awkward moment when you have to ask your manager to repeat the question because you were watching cat videos during the Zoom meeting.

Author: Laura Cassiday, Ph.D.

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