Some days you feel like a master multitasker as you drink your morning coffee, catch up on email and tune into a conference call. But did you know that for most people, in most situations, multitasking isn’t actually possible?
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We’re really wired to be monotaskers, meaning that our brains can only focus on one task at a time, says neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, PhD. “When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching,” she says.
One study found that just 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. For the rest of us, our attempts to do multiple activities at once aren’t actually that.
Multitasking can hinder your performance
Studies show that when our brain is constantly switching gears to bounce back and forth between tasks – especially when those tasks are complex and require our active attention – we become less efficient and more likely to make a mistake.
This might not be as apparent or impactful when we’re doing tasks that are simple and routine, like listening to music while walking, or folding laundry while watching TV. But when the stakes are higher and the tasks are more complex, trying to multitask can negatively impact our lives – or even be dangerous.
So-called multitasking divides our attention. It makes it harder for us to give our full attention to one thing. For example, in studies, attempting to complete additional tasks during a driving simulation led to poorer driving performance. Other studies suggest that people who frequently “media multitask” (like listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie) are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task.
It can also affect our ability to learn, because in order to learn, we need to be able to focus.
“The more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish, because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn,” Dr. Kubu says. “If we’re constantly attempting to multitask, we don’t practice tuning out the rest of the word to engage in deeper processing and learning.” One study found that college students who tried to multitask took longer to do their homework and had lower average grades.
Another pitfall is that trying to do too much at once makes it harder to be mindful and truly present in the moment – and mindfulness comes with a plethora of benefits for our minds and our bodies. In fact, many therapies based on mindfulness can even help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other conditions.
Choose to tackle one task at a time
Opting to focus on one task at a time can benefit many aspects of our life, including the workplace.
Take surgeons, for example. “People assume that a surgeon’s skill is primarily in the precision and steadiness of his or her hands. While there’s some truth to that, the true gift of a surgeon is the ability to single-mindedly focus on one person and complete a series of task over the course of many hours,” Dr. Kubu explains.
But surgeons aren’t necessarily born with this ability to monotask. Rather, they develop and perfect it through hours of practice. And you can, too.
“You don’t need to be a surgeon to benefit from freeing yourself of the pressure to multitask,” Dr. Kubu says. “Whether it’s taking a long road trip, organizing an event or reading a book, we unequivocally perform best one thing at a time. I encourage you to give it a try.”