There’s an old Chinese proverb, widely attributed to Confucius. “A man who chases two rabbits catches neither,” it’s said.
The essence, of course, is that in dividing our full attention, results suffer. The rabbits get away. We go hungry. The quality of our work diminishes in the face of multitasking.
Yet fast forward more than 2000 years from this proverb’s origin, and our attention is more divided than ever. What’s more, the perceived ability to multitask is worn like a badge of honour. In business, and even at home, multitasking is seen as a great cognitive dexterity to which we should aspire. And most of us like to think we can do it rather well.
It turns out we’re wrong. A growing body of research is providing compelling evidence to the contrary. Our brains are simply not neurologically wired to handle simultaneous cognitive tasks, beyond mixing one automatic and one non-automatic task. Perhaps we should have worked that out 2000 years earlier.
Yes, the truth is we’re terrible at multitasking. That’s one of the reasons research has found driving performance to be more impaired by multitasking with a hands-free phone conversation than by driving with the legal limit of alcohol in your bloodstream.
But while we’re terrible at it, multitasking is a potent side effect of the modern world. When we allow that side effect to take hold, it can have a significant and negative impact on our lives.
What scientific research tells us about multitasking
What we refer to as multitasking in day-to-day life is really the handling of numerous tasks in succession. Academics call this ‘task switching’. It provides a vague, illusory feeling of productivity – but research shows it does much more harm than good.
#1: Kills efficiency and prioritisation
When we try to multitask and rapidly switch between tasks, our productivity suffers. In fact, research suggests that breaking our flow of concentration by shifting between tasks can cost us as much as 40 percent of our productive time.
And not only is our productivity impacted, but the quality of our prioritisation can suffer too. A group of researchers from Stanford University looked at how multitasking can affect our task choices, with an interesting result. They found heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a series of task-switching tests, likely due to a reduced ability to filter out interference from irrelevant task sets.
#2: Decreased quality of work and more mistakes
It’s not just a productivity matter though. Multitasking can also have a negative impact on the quality of our work. Just take the example of media multitasking, which is a dominant feature of most of our lives. When an email notification goes off on your laptop or a text notification sounds on your mobile, this can have a serious knock-on effect on output.
Researchers at Florida State University explored this idea by looking at the impact of receiving mobile notifications on attentiveness levels. When participants received a phone call, the probability of them making errors in their task increased by some 28%. Similarly, when they received text messages, participants made 23% more errors than they did before receiving them.
But what’s more remarkable is that according to the research, the rate of distraction error was as high as it would be even if they had answered or responded to the calls and texts. In other words, it seems that just the mere noise and suggestion of a notification in our pockets or on our desks is enough to break our concentration.
#3: Hampers creativity and ‘blue-sky thinking’
Multitasking can also get in the way of ‘blue-sky thinking’. Without undisrupted time and focus on single tasks at a time, we become inefficient servants to the tasks and nothing more. Humans need space to think, process, cogitate and innovate. A constant race between different tasks flies in the face of imagination.
To address serious, challenging problems, we need focus. If our brains are accustomed to constantly switching tasks, we start with an automatic disadvantage.
Research is generally consistent with that view, too, although more challenging to quantify – particularly in terms of long-term creative implications. One piece of research compared participants’ ability to come up with novel uses for objects, comparing multitasking and non-multitasking groups. The ‘monotaskers’ came out with a clear creative advantage.
#4: Drains energy and enjoyment
The impact of multitasking also extends to our physical energy levels. As we switch between tasks, we take more wasteful decisions than we would completing single tasks sequentially.
Decisions ferociously burn our physical and mental energy. Various studies have shown that making decisions on more cognitively demanding tasks quickly consumes glucose. But delaying the sense of satisfaction from completion of tasks is likely to exacerbate this energy-draining effect even further.
Of course, this in turn means that multitasking can impact our sense of enjoyment and fulfilment from work. The aforementioned creativity study also found that monotaskers got more enjoyment from their tasks.
#5: Rewires and possibly even shrinks your brain
Perhaps most worryingly of all, research has shown that multitasking can have an adverse neurological impact. A group of researchers from Stanford University found that media multitaskers had both poorer functioning working memory and long-term memory. According to the research, “chronic media multitasking is associated with a reduced ability to draw on the past – be it very recent or more remote – to inform present behaviour.”
Two researchers from the University College of London wanted to take this a little further. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a technique known as Voxel-Based Morphometry (VBM), they investigated the brain structures of participants across a spectrum of media multitasking levels.
The results? Individuals with higher media multitasking scores had smaller grey-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex. That’s a part of the brain involved in functions like attention allocation, decision-making, ethics and morality, and impulse control.
While studies like this don’t provide definitive evidence of causation, they do point in a particular direction when taken alongside the growing pool of evidence on the cognitive impacts of such multitasking.
So why do we still try to multitask?
Here’s the thing: despite all the scientific evidence on its adverse effects, most of us still find ourselves following these unhealthy multitasking patterns. But why? Why, for example, have I been drawn to my mobile phone on various occasions as I’ve set out writing this article?
The answer, it seems, lies in neurochemistry. When we send an email, receive a tweet, hear a notification – you name it – a particular neurotransmitter plays a role: dopamine. This little release of dopamine we receive provides anticipation, unpredictability and reward.
And this dose of neurological pleasure brings us back for more. The dopamine release we get when we send a notification gets reinforced by a dopamine release when we receive a reply. This, at its heart, is the feedback loop that underpins the success of the major social media players.
But, of course, I don’t just get drawn to my mobile or emails because of this dopamine release. Motivation plays an important role too. When you combine the forces of dopamine with a motivational impetus, you can quickly see how task switching (or multitasking, as we like to call it) is becoming so prevalent in the modern world.
Forget multitasking, start ‘monotasking’
Let’s be clear. This article isn’t a case against all multitasking. We can do two things at once, but more so when one of those things is automatic, like listening to music. But when we try to combine tasks that carry greater cognitive demands, we simply come unstuck. We start to task switch, and our predispositions as human beings begin to reinforce this pattern.
By getting more deeply absorbed in this pattern, we move further and further away from a trained, focused mind. We suffer the consequences of lower productivity, skewed prioritisation, inferior work quality, reduced creativity, decreased memory and lower cognitive control.
But perhaps most importantly, we’re less mindful. We’re in a rush. We’re back and forth. Put simply, we’re not fully focused in the present moment. And a perpetual state of flux isn’t healthy – or clever.
In short, being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Confucius’ rabbits tell the story. A blind rush to break our focus on one goal can in turn compromise many. In a modern world, where those rabbits are abundant, sometimes we need to be mindful. Sometimes we need to stop multitasking and start monotasking.