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Are You as Great at Multitasking as You Think?

Image of Ferris wheel against blue sky. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, multitasking, Katherine Broadway

How often have you heard someone say, “I am a great multitasker!”? Have you said it about yourself? Many believe this is a positive attribute and will proudly boast of their abilities.

Surprising Information

It might surprise you to know that studies have shown the brain can only perform one function at a time. It has also been proven that changing tasks slows you down. It takes time for the brain to refocus when shifting from one task to another, meaning a task could take as much as 4 times as long to complete as it should.

Multitasking Test

If studies are not enough to convince you, try this test presented by the Potential Project, a leading global provider of organizational effectiveness.

1. Draw 2 horizontal lines on a piece of paper.

2. Have someone time you as you do the task.

3. On one line write: I am great at multitasking.

4. On the next line write the numbers 1-20.

It usually takes around 20 seconds.

Now multitask:

1. Draw the same two horizontal lines.

2. Have someone time you.

3. This time write one letter on the top line and then a number in the sequence on the second line, changing from line to line. For example: I, 1, a, 2, until you have completed the sentence and number sequence.

After completing the test, you will probably find that your time has increased, and that you feel more frustrated and stressed having to “rethink” what letter or number comes next. Even when you do not consciously notice it, this is what happens every time you switch from one task to the next.

There Are Exceptions

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who studies thinking, has found that there are a few “supertaskers” who can multitask effectively. They make up 3% of the population. It appears to be caused by genetics; it cannot be learned.

He also believes that most people overestimate their ability to multitask.

Even if you happen to be one of the exceptions, here are eight reasons multitasking is not helpful in your life.

1. Creates bad brain habits:

According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains are not wired to multitask. When we accomplish a small task, the dopamine released makes us feel good. This creates a feedback loop that pushes us to do small, quick things to get that reward. We fool ourselves into thinking we have accomplished a lot when we have not. What is actually happening is that we are switching from one task to another that is taking very little thinking ability.

2. Make more mistakes:

Multitasking makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information. This makes us less efficient and reduces the quality of our work. We miss important details, which contributes to making mistakes.

3. Unintentional, intentional blindness:

Unintentional, intentional blindness is when we fail to recognize some form of stimuli in our life. It is not related to vision; it comes form consciously or unconsciously, not paying attention to what is happening around us. One way it happens is when our attention is pulled in many different directions it becomes possible for us to miss and avoid important things in life. It usually involves the things that are hard for us to face or those things we do not want to face. That appointment that is stressful to attend gets missed because of a time confusion. The details of a meeting that are necessary for success are lost in the morass of our mind. Acknowledging the needs of others gets lost in the busyness of our mind.

4. Remember less with less detail:

When you switch between tasks and ideas, it interrupts the creation of memories. To remember, ideas have to be processed and stored, and switching between ideas and tasks will interrupt the process.

In the words of a young adult talking about phone calls with her parent, “I hate to talk to my mom on the phone. I can hear her doing things in the background or she will put me on speaker and there are so many distractions, I don’t feel heard even when she says the right things.” In order to connect with someone, you must pay attention to them. This cannot be done when you are multitasking.

6. Decreases creativity:

When your thinking is scattered among many task and ideas, it ties up the brain and does not leave any room for that unexpected thought or creative idea to emerge.

7. Can be dangerous:

We have all heard of car accidents that are caused by talking on the phone, but what about the number of falls that occur because of inattention to where you are walking? Many accidents could be avoided, if you pay attention to the moment.

8. Increases Stress:

It is an erroneous belief of those who multitask that they are getting more done and therefore reducing their stress. Studies show that multitasking increases the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Having our brain constantly changing focus increases stress and makes us tired. This leads to mental exhaustion.

The next time you think you’re multi-tasking, stop and be aware that you are really task switching. Then give yourself a time limit and focus on just one task to see if you can complete it better, faster, and with less energy. Do you have trouble getting things done and don't know why? Want help finding our? Call me at: (919)881-2001.


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