The Multitasking Myth

We’ve all heard it repeated perhaps for our entire life and career; women can multitask better than men. It’s a universal fact. One that has formed the basis of many discussions, arguments and even stand-up comedy routines.

Except for one problem. Multitasking is a complete myth.

Multitasking is where you are trying to do more than one thing at the one time. In theory we are saying that we are focusing on two things at the one time. Impossible because the brain doesn't work that way! The brain cannot focus on two things at the one time, what you are really doing is swap tasking - just swapping your focus from one task to another very quickly.

McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin says that “Switching concentration across tasks comes at a neurological cost, depleting chemicals we need to concentrate. In a number of studies from MIT and others that what we're really doing is we're paying attention to one thing for a little bit of time and then another and then another and then we come back around to the first.”

One proviso before I go any further though – we can multi task simple things as long as one of them doesn’t require our attention. For example walking and talking on the phone, we don’t actually focus on walking so therefore we can do two things at once. However, as soon as walking requires our attention (for example if we get lost and have to think about where we are going) we can no longer continue the conversation on the phone.

That’s because these are separate projects that are occurring in separate parts of the brain, they require a separate start time, a separate monitoring process. You end up dividing your attention into little bits and pieces, not really engaging fully in any one thing. All that switching across tasks comes with a neurobiological cost. It depletes resources. So after an hour or two of attempting to multitask, if we find that we're tired and we can't focus, it's because those very neural chemicals we needed to focus are now gone.

Swap tasking has been shown to reduce our performance and stress our brain. One study in the UK showed that the cognitive performance of people who had been multi-tasking all day was worse than people who were stoned (been smoking marijuana) which speaks volumes about how bad swap tasking is for our brain.

Don’t believe me? Try this.

Grab a timer and a blank piece of paper. Write the sentence:

“Multitasking is swap-tasking”

But before you do, the way you write it is, write one letter of the sentence and then below it write the first letter of the alphabet, then write the next letter of the sentence and then the next letter of the alphabet. Keep writing one letter of the sentence and then another letter of the alphabet. It will look like this.

M u l t i .......

A b c d e .....

Keep writing until the sentence is complete and the alphabet is written below it

Note down the time it takes you.

Now repeat the exercise writing the sentence in full and then the alphabet in full. Do not go from one to the other; just do the sentence and then the alphabet. Note down the time it took.

What you will notice is that the first method will take you 4 to 5 times longer than the second method.

In the first method you are multitasking it (swapping your focus from one task to the next) while in the second method you are completing one task and then moving onto the next one.

There are some jobs that require, not multitasking but instead the rapid switching science is proving to be the case; Air Traffic Controller, Translator or Stock Market Trader for example.

We can take a tip from air traffic controllers who, as part of their rosters, are required after every hour and a half to two hours of work it's mandated that they take a 15 to 30 minute break. As Professor Levitin puts it “That means an unplugged disconnected break where they go for a walk or listen to music, they exercise, something to restore all of the burned up neurochemicals.”