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Does Multitasking Really Work?

While you are reading this article, you click back to your e-mail looking for a response from a client, then you send a quick text to your sister reminding her about dinner on Saturday, and then you answer a phone call from your boss, after turning down the music you’ve been listening to on your IPod.

Does Multitasking Really Work?

I know. I know. You’re a good multitasker, you say. Chances are you are not as good as you think you are. Some of those tasks we do all at the same time are getting lost in the shuffle. Here’s why: our brains are not designed to do multiple cognitive jobs at once. In fact, some research is suggesting that multitasking reduces our productivity by as much as 40 percent.

Multitasking didn’t even exist before the computer age

Let’s define our terms. The term multitasking didn’t even exist before the computer age. It fact, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists its first meaning as “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer. “ Its second definition is the one we’re talking about here:  “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.”

In today’s busy, plugged-in world, it’s hard for us not to do more than one thing at once. We ride an exercise bike while reading a magazine on an e-reader. We listen to music while cooking dinner. We walk the dog while talking on the phone. No problem, you say. You’re right. These tasks don’t require high levels of brain power, and when we do them we feel efficient and satisfied. In fact, most young people today are so used to multitasking that they get fidgety when they are doing only one thing.

Multitasking can be dangerous

We get in trouble, though, when we try to combine texting with writing a report or listening to a lecture while evaluating an ad campaign. Our brains simply cannot fully focus on both these dissimilar things at once, so we find we have to shift our focus back and forth, which ultimately causes us to waste our time and productivity. In the case of texting and driving — or even texting and walking, as some news stories have pointed out — multitasking can be dangerous!

Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford University who has studied multitasking, once assumed that people who multitask heavily develop some other coping skills. He thought, for instance that they would be adept at filtering information and at keeping a high working memory. His research found that these assumptions were false.

“We were absolutely shocked,” Nass said in an interview after his 2009 research was published.  “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”  He went on to say that his team was unable to find something that multitaskers were better at than people who didn’t multitask.

Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, describes multitasking as a “bottleneck in the mind.”

 “Think of it as if you are trying to use Word and Excel at the same time,” he explains,  “and every time you switch programs, you have to quit the program you’re working on and restart the program you’re moving to.”

So what’s a confirmed multitasker – albeit a bad one — to do to? Here are few tips to do less multitasking and more focused work:

Here are few tips to do less multitasking

  • Keep only one tab on your screen open at once. Seriously, it lessens the temptation to switch back and forth between projects.
  • Check your email at only certain set times a day: say first in the morning, right before lunch and before you knock off work for the day.
  • Create a to-do list and follow it to help you limit your distractions.
  • Let your voice-mail take messages and then return calls when you are finished with what you are working on.
  • Let people around you know when you are busy. Shut your office door if you have one.
  • Take breaks to stretch or get some fresh air in between tasks. It helps you refocus.
  • Do your most important work when you are freshest. For many people, that is the beginning of their workday.
  • De-clutter your workspace so that other waiting projects don’t beckon to you.
  • Set attainable goals for yourself such as: I’ll get half of this report done by noon and the rest done after lunch.
  • Dare to be slow in a hurry-up world. Doing things fast or in combination with other things can make you sloppy. Don’t be afraid to take your time on a task when you need it. You’ll find you may save time in the long run by avoiding errors.

Now just in case you are worried that this information means you can’t listen to your tunes while you work, you can breathe easy. Nass points out that we have “a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.” Whew!


Nass, Clifford . “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.”  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 September 15; 106(37): 15583–15587. Published online 2009 August 24. doi:  10.1073/pnas.0903620106N.Web.