Take a second to look at all the things in front of you right now. If you’re like me, you’ve got at least a few browser windows open (each one loaded with tabs you “need”). Your email inbox is steadily filling up in the background. Slack keeps popping up messages from different teammates. And of course, your phone… In other words, you’re multitasking.
The problem is, there’s no such thing as multitasking.
As multiple studies have confirmed, true multitasking—doing more than one task at the same time—is a myth. Those people who think they can split their attention between multiple tasks at once aren’t actually getting more done. In fact, they’re doing less, getting more stressed out, and performing worse than those who single-task.
So why do so many of us spend our days trying to multitask? And if it’s so bad for us, how can we break the cycle and protect our attention, focus, and time?
In this guide, we’ll dig into just how bad multitasking is, look at situations where you multitask at work (without even realizing it) and then give simple exercises to help you learn to focus on one thing at a time.
1. What is multitasking? The 3 types of multitasking (and why it isn’t what you think it is)
- Multitasking: What doing two things at once does to your brain
- Switching costs: What happens every time you bounce between tasks
- Attention Residue: How multitasking impacts us even after we’ve moved onto a new task
2. Multitasking in the workplace
3. How to stop multitasking and get more done
1. The 3 types of multitasking (and why it isn’t what you think it is)
While most of us can do something as simple as walking and chewing gum or holding a conversation at the same time, the same can’t be said for more complex tasks. David Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says we simply don’t have the brain power to multitask:
“… as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, and you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks, there just aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.”
But this isn’t the only example of multitasking out there.
Thinking of multitasking as simply “doing two difficult things at once” doesn’t tell the full story. Instead, there are three forms of multitasking we need to be aware of, especially in the workplace:
- Multitasking (attempting to do two or more tasks simultaneously)
- Switching costs (switching back and forth between tasks)
- Attention residue (performing a number of tasks in rapid succession)
Each has serious impacts on our ability to do good work. Yet they’re also deeply ingrained in how most of us spend our time at work. Let’s look at a few examples of each.
Multitasking: What doing two things at once does to your brain
Most of us think about multitasking as trying to do two or more things at once. It’s the busy receptionist taking calls, dealing with customers, and grabbing files. Or the project manager spending all day on Slack while writing documents and getting updates from teammates.
In fact, most of us multitasking in this way. We keep email and IM open while we write, design, or code, and try to handle both at the same time.
When we looked at the data from 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that the average knowledge worker spends 40.1% of their productive time a day multitasking with communication tools alone.
But according to Dr. Meyer, trying to split your attention between tasks that require effort and concentration means one or both of them will suffer:
“Once you start to make things more complicated, things get messier, and as a result, there’s going to be interference with one or more of the tasks. Either you’re going to have to slow down on one of the tasks, or you’re going to start making mistakes.”
Dr. Meyers is putting it lightly. Many other studies have found that excessive multitasking has severe consequences on our mental and physical well-being. Among other things, multitasking:
- Impacts your short-term memory: A 2011 research study from the University of California San Francisco found multitasking negatively impacts your working memory—your brain’s “Scratchpad” used to manage and focus on key information.
- Leads to increased anxiety: Neuroscientists say that multitasking literally drains your mind’s energy reserves, causing you to lose focus and become more anxious.
- Inhibits creative thinking: Added anxiety and a lack of brain “space” caused by multitasking can also cause you to lose your ability to think outside the box. To be creative, our minds need space to digest or “incubate” new ideas.
- Stops you from getting into a state of flow: Flow is the state of mind where we’re so focused on a task that our productivity skyrockets. (In one example, executives said they were 500% more productive while in flow). However, flow requires sustained effort and focus. Something multitasking gets in the way of.
- Causes more mistakes and less productivity: Multiple studies have found that multitasking causes people to take longer to do simple tasks, drop your IQ by an average of 10 points, and can even have the same negative impact as losing a night’s sleep.
Switching costs: What happens each time you bounce between tasks
Our brains can’t do two things at once. They’re simply not wired to do so. Instead, what we think of as “multitasking” is really just bouncing back and forth between tasks very quickly.
But all these switches take their toll. We can shift our focus really fast—sometimes it takes just a 10th of a second. However, the time doesn’t matter as much as the bandwidth required to jump from one task to another and back again.
Despite all these negative consequences, attempting to multitask isn’t uncommon. One small study found workers switched tasks every 3 minutes. Rather than list off more research, let’s try a simple exercise that quickly illustrates switching costs.
- Take a sheet of paper and draw two lines on it
- Now, time yourself while you write “I am a great multitasker” on the first line, and then write the numbers 1–20 sequentially on the second line (most people take about 20 seconds to do this)
- Take a new piece of paper and draw two more lines
- This time, time yourself switching between the two tasks. Write a letter from the sentence “I am a great multitasker” on line one, then write the number “1” on line two. Then alternate back and forth between writing the next letter in the sentence and the next number in sequence.
- Continue until you’ve completed both tasks
You probably won’t have to finish both tasks before realizing that it’s taking you a hell of a lot more time to get through it when you’re switching back and forth. This might not mean much if you’re watching a movie and scrolling through Instagram at the same time. But in the workplace it not only slows you down but adds anxiety and stress to your day.
Attention Residue: How multitasking keeps impacting us, even once we’ve switched to another task
Finally, there’s a type of multitasking that few people really talk about: doing multiple different tasks in quick succession. Doing one thing at a time is infinitely more productive than multitasking. But just because you’re going through your to-do list at lightning speed doesn’t mean you’re free from multitasking.
Each time you switch activities, you’re forcing your brain’s executive functions (that manages how, when, and in what order you do tasks) to go through two energy-intensive stages:
- First, there’s goal shifting. This is where you decide to do one thing instead of another.
- Next, there’s role activation. This is where you change from the rules or context of the previous task to the new one.
Not only is this mentally taxing. But it also isn’t a completely clean process.
In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. And that has its own associated cost. As the authors write:
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
In her 2009 paper, Why Is It So Hard To Do My Work? Business school professor Sophie Leroy calls this “attention residue.” When we move from one task to the next one, it takes time for our attention to catch up. We’re not machines. And pieces of ideas and lingering thoughts remain even after we’ve crossed an item off our to-do list.
2. Multitasking in the workplace
Multitasking affects us in all aspects of our lives. But nowhere are the consequences clearer than in the workplace. Let’s look at some of the ways we multitask at work without realizing it, and how we can gain more from intense single-tasking.
Why you probably multitask at work way more than you think you do
If we think of the different ways we can multitask—doing two things at once, switching costs, and attention residue—it’s probably pretty clear how these apply to your workday. But maybe not.
Maybe you think you’re actually good at multitasking (as we’ll explain next, you’re not). Or perhaps you don’t think you multitask very often. But multitasking has a way of creeping into our days in ways we don’t realize.
Let’s look at one of the most common examples of workplace multitasking we already touched on: email.
When we looked into the email habits of 50,000+ knowledge workers, not only did we find that on average they spend 40.1% of their day multitasking with email and IM. We also found most people can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking those tools. (Even worse, 35.5% of workers check their email and IM every 3 minutes or less.)
The problem is that this behavior is seen as completely normal.
Even if it’s not explicitly stated, we’re expected to check emails and respond to message right away. In fact, over 70% of people keep their inbox open all day long, yet only 20% have a plan with how and when they deal with email.
Again, this is multitasking. Even if you think you’re being productive by answering emails during other tasks, you’re not. As Stanford researcher Clifford Nass writes about these “heavy multitaskers”:
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.”
It’s not just email that pulls at our attention. The more devices, tools, meetings, and tasks we bring into our workday, the more likely we are to multitask.
In one study, UC Irvine professor Gloria Mark found that, in general, workers average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching. From our own research, we found knowledge works on average, use 56 different apps and websites per day and switch between them more than 300 times.
The power of single-tasking
The modern workplace is a minefield of multitasking opportunities. But that also means that people who are able to focus intensely on one thing at a time have a major advantage. If you want to get tasks done at a higher quality and in less time, it pays dividends to focus on one at a time. Here’s why:
- Single-tasking = less stress. When you expend extra energy trying to multitask, you end up exhausted and behind on work. When you focus on one thing at a time, however, you’re more likely to get into a state of flow, actually finish what you wanted to, and in turn, lower your workplace stress levels.
- Single-tasking makes you focus on what you “should” do (not what you “could” do). Choosing something to place all your attention on for a set period of time means saying no to a bunch of other tasks. This not only helps you prioritize your most important work, but can also rebuild your focus.
- Doing one thing at a time can make you more creative. It might seem like single-tasking is limiting. But in fact, constraints can boost creativity. As research has found, when we face scarcity in resources we give ourselves “freedom to use those resources in less conventional ways—because we have to.”
3. How to stop multitasking and get more done
It’s not easy to stop multitasking, even if we know the benefits of just doing one thing at a time. The modern workplace is designed to promote multitasking. We’ve been sold a lie that we’re more efficient when we try to do multiple things at once. But as we’ve seen, this just isn’t the case.
Here are a few ways to protect your focus and stop multitasking so much at work:
5 ways to reduce the amount of multitasking you do each day
The easiest way to reduce multitasking is to set up your day and your work environment for single-tasking and focus. This means removing all the triggers and distractions that pull at your attention when you’re trying to get through a task.
To start, focus on these five techniques:
1. Create a daily schedule with dedicated time for focused work
Your daily schedule is your map for the day. It tells you what your intentions are and holds you accountable to them. It’s also your first line of defense against multitasking.
Start by scheduling non-negotiable time for “focused work” at the start of your day. This can be as short as 15-20 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. The goal is simply to start rebuilding your ability to focus on a task at hand without distraction.
2. Limit your email time and work in “bursts”
Throughout the day, one of the biggest contributors to multitasking is your email. Communication time eats into everything we do. And because it feels productive, we don’t really think of it as multitasking. But it is.
Start by limiting your time on email (you can use RescueTime to track your email time and let you know when you go over your daily goal). Then, commit to working through your emails and IMs in “bursts”. Not only does this help you focus, but bursty communication has been found to make teams more productive and creative.
3. Block distracting websites when you want to focus
External distractions like notifications can cause us to multitask, but just as dangerous is boredom. When we feel bored or anxious, we’re more likely to procrastinate or “just check this one website really quickly.” This is context switching at its worst. To protect yourself, use a website blocker like FocusTime during your focused work sessions or at specific points of the day where you know your energy and motivation is low (like after lunch).
4. Alternate between periods of focus and breaks
Avoiding multitasking doesn’t mean avoiding breaks. In fact, to keep your energy levels high and focus on single-tasking, you need to have moments to refuel and refocus. Regular breaks also help clear out the attention residue left over from your previous task.
5. Optimize your work environment for focus
Distractions aren’t the only thing that causes us to multitask. Your work environment can pull at your attention just as much as a notification. Designing a work environment for focus can be as simple as clearing out the clutter (both physical and digital) and making distractions harder to use (like putting your phone in another room).
Following these steps won’t guarantee you don’t multitask. But they will help you focus and give you the best chance of staying committed to seeing a task through to the finish line. Start small and gradually build your focused sessions adding more time for heads down work or hard blocking distractions as you go.
Are some people better at multitasking than others?
If you’re still not convinced that multitasking is bad for you, or that you’re some sort of outlier, I’ve got news for you: You’re not.
First off, both men and women are equally bad at multitasking. While men and women reliably outperform each other in certain cognitive exercises, multitasking isn’t one of them. As researchers from the University of Bergen (Norway) write:
“We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small.”
What about younger people versus older? Surely “digital natives” raised on multiple devices and notifications are better suited to multitasking? Again, the answer is no. In fact, children who are more likely to multitask end up taking longer to do their work and have a harder time remembering what they’ve learned. As Dr. Meyer writes:
“… there’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking.”
This isn’t to say that efficient multitasking is completely impossible. Studies have consistently found that about 2–2.5% of people are what’s called “supertaskers” and are able to efficiently work through multiple problems at once. But don’t assume this is you. In fact, people who think they are the best at multitasking are almost always the worst at it.
(If you’ve got 40 minutes to spare, you can even take the supertasker test to see if you’re part of this population).
As the workplace gets busier and more distracting, the ability to sit down and focus for an extended period of time will become one of the most sought-after skills of any employee. The problem is that every day of tab-filled browsers, always-open inboxes, and non-stop notifications slowly erodes that ability.
As we’ve seen, multitasking kills productivity for everyone but the tiniest population. Yet our actions and expectations continue to leave us vulnerable to trying to do more than one thing at a time. Hopefully, this guide has helped give you a deeper understanding of what multitasking is, how common it is in your work day, and ways you can protect yourself from it.
Our best resources on how to stop multitasking:
Read our full guide on the power of single-tasking (and how to make sure you do more of it each day).
Dig into ways to find more focus in the modern workplace, from controlling your technology to using deliberate rest to recharge.
Cut these 10 common workplace time wasters from your day.
Learn how to handle information overload so you don’t feel compelled to multitask.
Uncover more ways to work in “bursts” instead of being “always on”.
Learn how RescueTime goals and alerts can keep you accountable to single-tasking during the day.
Supercharge your schedule with 20+ time management tips and strategies to make your days more efficient.