“Multitasking” is a Myth

multitaskingA myth has arisen that multitasking is effective, and that those who are technologically savvy are particularly effective at it. But studies, including a 2009 Stanford University study—have shown that it is just that: a myth. In fact, frequent multitaskers were shown to have more difficulty filtering out useless information.


The truth is that no one can accomplish two things at once that require mental energy. You can only do one at a time. You may think that you’re multitasking if you are working on two things simultaneously, but in actuality, you are constantly switching between one activity and another. In his book The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done, Dave Crenshaw calls this “switchtasking.”

Switchtasking costs time and damages relationships

Have you ever tried to speak to someone either in person or on the telephone while they are checking their email, text messaging or reviewing documents on their desk? How did that make you feel? Have you ever done it to someone else? Were both tasks really getting the attention they deserved? Did you have to go back and review or redo what you were doing? Did you have to ask the other person to repeat what they said or realize mid-stream that you were not paying attention?

Switchtasking will always cost you; it takes time for your brain to switch from one activity to another, to find your place, to return to full engagement with a task. You will always be less effective then if you focus on one thing at a time—sometimes up to 50% less effective. The more complicated the task, the higher the switching cost.

The next time you are tempted to check your email while you’re on the telephone or you catch yourself waving a colleague into your office while you are working on something else, ask yourself, “What will the switching cost of this interruption be?” Do yourself and your colleagues and clients a favor and stop switchtasking.

Cognitive control in media multitaskers | PNAS

(photo: totalAldo)

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  • Etan Ben-Ami

    Of course, when you over-multitask, you get into a state similar to an overloaded computer system: thrashing. Been there?