Multitasking: the Worrying Downsides

Published: 10th November 2015 08:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th November 2015 08:26 AM   |  A+A-

LONDON: You've probably heard that men are supposedly incapable of multitasking, while women find it easy to work in this way. The truth is that no one can multitask brilliantly, and the more often you try, the more distracted, distractible and inefficient you'll become.

You may find this hard to believe - after all, we're often encouraged to think of multitasking as a good thing, particularly at work. In fact, many people feel guilty about turning off their electronic devices and focusing on only one task at a time. This is, however, the secret of efficiency and accuracy. Multitasking is false economy.

When you believe you're doing two or more things at the same time, what's actually happening is that you're switching back and forth from one task to another. This is because the human brain is incapable of performing two cognitive tasks simultaneously. You do this so rapidly that you're generally unaware of it, but the effort of switching your attention between tasks - even simple ones - costs time and mental effort.

Prof David Meyer at the University of Michigan found that when individuals attempted to perform two or more related tasks simultaneously, it took them up to twice as long to complete both than it did when they worked sequentially. Meyer believes that when we multitask, we also increase the chance of making mistakes.

Because it's more stressful to juggle several tasks at once than it is to focus on each one in turn, multitasking is accompanied by the release of stress hormones and adrenalin, making us feel "wired". In time, such behaviour may even lead to lapses in short-term memory.

There is yet another downside to multitasking. When you remain open to other possibilities while trying to focus on one task - in particular, if you allow phone calls, emails or texts to interrupt you while you're working on something else - you lose considerable time getting back to your original task.

If that isn't enough, it seems that multitasking can also adversely affect new learning. Karin Foerde and her colleagues at the University of California found that when subjects tried to learn new material while also attending to a secondary task, the knowledge acquired was less capable of being organised or applied to new situations. This has implications for students who try to learn while also texting or remaining alert for incoming emails.

Of course, it's impossible always to work sequentially. We often have to be aware of at least one other task while focusing on another. But you'll gain efficiency, feel calmer and work with greater accuracy if, whenever possible, you focus on and complete one task before turning your attention to the next one.


Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist. Her book, The Key to Calm is published by Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 14.99

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