I had to learn not to laugh whenever someone lists “multitasking” as a skill on their CV. For so long, we have been fed the illusion that all top performers in their fields are able to multitask and that is why they are able to achieve so much. The belief that the human brain can do two tasks of equal importance at the same time at full efficiency is so pervasive that a job seeker can be forgiven if they include that as a (dubious) skill on their CV. No one taught us better.
For the purpose of clarity, let me put this out here: multitasking is a myth. Research from Stanford University has shown that people who claim to be very good at multitasking performed terribly on memory tests over time. They experienced higher levels of stress and made more mistakes than individuals who focused on a single task at a time. The human brain is simply not hardwired to focus on two tasks at a time.
The only tasks at which you can multitask are those that have become automatic and do not need any focus on your part. For example, you can walk while chewing gum. You might also be able to multitask if you are performing two tasks that use a different region of the brain. This is what allows you to read while listening to instrumental music. The regions of the brain that you use to comprehend words on paper is different from the region that processes the instrumental music. If the music had lyrics, however, you wouldn’t be able to read and listen to it at the same time. The lyrics would compete for mental resources with the words on paper.
When you try to multitask, what you are doing is rapidly shifting your attention from one task to another and you are not doing this very efficiently. It often takes a few minutes for your brain to completely shift its focus from one task to another. If you keep switching tasks before your brain has fully focused, you deplete mental energy faster, get tired and lose focus. At the end of the day, you’d end up getting less done.
Frequent multitasking not only hurts your productivity but it can have long term effects such as decreased attention span and inability to focus. It will also have a toll on your relationships. If you keep reaching for your phone while someone is talking to you or continue chatting under the desk during a meeting, the person speaking does not have your full attention. People notice these things and while some might be too polite to take it up with you, it will affect their perception of you over time. You can’t tell your spouse you’re listening to them talk about their day while your eyes are glued to your phone screen.
The late British actor Richard Griffiths was famous for stopping performances mid-play when a mobile phone rings and asking the offending viewer to leave before continuing. He had the right attitude to focus. If you’re there to watch the play, you don’t need your mobile phones.
Rather than attempt to multitask and delude yourself into mistaken higher efficiency, learn to manage tasks instead. Focus on one important task at a time. Let that task be what you are doing. When it is completed, move on to the next one. Top CEOs set out specific time to respond to their emails during the day and only respond to mails during those hours because they know if they stop to check a message anytime the notification flashes across their screen, they will be taking their attention away from other more important tasks such as the meeting they are currently in. You can afford to take a leaf out of their book. You will get more done, have less rework and your relationships will see a positive boost.
If anyone believes they can multitask efficiently, I have a small challenge for them. Try drawing a circle with your left hand while drawing a square with your right. When you succeed, be sure to send me the video.