Why Multitasking is Complete Bullsh*t

Multitasking

There's a reason you don't see White Walkers juggling multiple tasks at once.


Ever been in a conversation where something was said that made you want to roll your eyes -- but to remain polite, you simply “rolled” them in your mind instead? 

That’s how I feel when someone mentions how good he or she is at multitasking.

Wait, you say. Yeah, most people can’t multitask but I’M great at it.

Lose the hubris, Hubert…you’re not. The entire concept of multitasking is a big, fat myth. But we don’t blame you for believing the hype.

What we like to call “multitasking” makes you feel like you’re getting a lot accomplished at once. Each time we send an email while on a phone call, or like a Facebook post during a meeting, we get a small hit of satisfaction because it seems like we’re getting so much done. Hey, it's downright wasteful to try to do one thing at a time, right?

We trick ourselves into believing we can successfully handle multiple tasks at once. And we can't

That thing called multitasking is really task-switching. And moving back and forth between several tasks wastes productivity, as your mental energy is burned switching gears. Plus, you never truly get to focus on one or the other.

How bad is it? A Time magazine study showed how millennials switch their attention between media platforms 27 times per hour. No wonder the New York Times estimated that nearly $700 billion annually is wasted due to multitasking.

So why are we so big on task-switching?

Because we get a hit of dopamine (a reward hormone) when we complete tiny tasks such as sending an email or posting a tweet. Our brains love that dope. And we get trapped in a daily cycle of task and reward.

And while we FEEL mega-productive, that’s not really the case because our efficiency and performance is reduced significantly; continual task-switching leads to a 40% loss of productivity during a typical day.

Our brains have a finite amount of attention and are not wired to successfully handle two cognitive tasks at once. You can only conduct one mental activity at a time (note: we’re talking about cognitive tasks here, which require more processing power than passive activities like walking and chewing gum). 

Think about it: when you focus on ONE task and devote your mental space to it, isn’t it logical you’ll do a better job?  You won’t make small errors. You won’t be sloppy. The odds are far greater you’ll do your best work.

And we’re not saying you can’t juggle multiple projects or clients.That’s a business reality. But you shouldn’t try to work on more that one of those at one time (or more likely, work on them while retweeting a crying Jordan meme).

Task-switching not only kills your performance, it also makes you stupid. A Stanford University study found that frequent multitaskers had more trouble organizing their thoughts and were actuallyslower at switching between tasks.

Wait, it gets worse. A study of the University of London found that men who multitask during cognitive tasks had an IQ drop which lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year old.

So what to do?  Here’s two suggestions:

  1. Don’t dip in and out of email or social media throughout your day.  Put aside a time for distraction tasks (email, social media, texts). This is the concept of batch processing.

  2. Take a walk for a few minutes every few hours to clear your head. Just walk. No texts, no emails, no internet. And recruit an office friend to go with you. What, and have a...conversation?!? How radical.

And while we’re on the interpersonal tip, here’s another reason to give multitasking the heave-ho? It’s killing your relationships.

Every time you have a “conversation” with your significant other and you’re dividing your time between that and something electronic, you chip away a little piece of a bond you’ve spent a long time developing.

Your grandparents didn’t stay married for seven decades because pop-pop checked his fantasy lineup while listening to grandma complain about her sciatica (although in fairness, they probably stayed married that long because he was a travelling salesman and never at home to annoy the hell out of her).

Do the other person the courtesy of LISTENING without keeping your thumbs and eyes occupied elsewhere. It’s disrespectful any other way.

And here’s our ode to fear: Australian researchers found that people on calls (even hands-free) or answering texts had a distraction level EXCEEDING that of those with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. Think about that next time you text and step into a city crosswalk, busy bee.

Wanna be a business hero? Focus on the ONE task in front of you and crush it. Over and over. Don’t succumb to the Book of Face or tweeting blue birds or the Evil Empire of e-mail. Build a rep for thoroughness.  

How would you like your surgeon to check his Instagram feed while reconnecting your organs? Or your pilot to play Pokémon GO while navigating through a storm?

Two words: Discipline, baby.

So the next time you say “I’m great at multitasking.” expect to hear:

Oh, so YOU'RE the one person on earth who defies the laws of brain chemistry and human productivity!

Forgive me. I’m practicing my sarcasm while writing an article. Hey, maybe I CAN do two things at once.

It’s time to ban the entire concept of multitasking. Let’s ship it off to one of those remote Game of Thrones kingdoms no one ever gives a sh*t about and let the White Walkers have at it.

Or to put it in even more relatable terms:

John Lavallo57 Posts

John is Columbia Business School MBA with expertise in marketing, business leadership, and law. John is a successful entrepreneur who took his first company public. He currently resides in New York City.