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The Dark Side of Multitasking

Given the new normal, many of us find that we are managing our children's eLearning while hopping on a conference call while opening the back door for our barking dog to go outside.

Any of this sound familiar? How is it working out for you? The fact is, while many of us tout our superhuman multitasking skills, they’re nothing to brag about. Only 2 percent of the population can claim a true multitasker title, but for the rest of us, productivity—and/or quality—goes out the window when we do multiple things at once.1  For that special 2 percent, it seems genetics play a role in the ability to work on many tasks at the same time, using both sides of the brain, without sacrificing efficiency or quality.

What we think happens. 

For the other 98 percent, we simply believe multitasking exists; that we are able to work effectively on multiple tasks at the same time. We keep many efforts in motion at once and feel as if we can take on the world, but in reality, our brains are making a hard switch back and forth between tasks in order to manage them all.3

What really happens. 

Research shows we’re nowhere as close to superhuman as we think. In one study that looked at the MRIs of people in a driving simulation, the simple introduction of listening to something while driving caused the amount of attention put toward driving to decrease by a whopping 37 percent.4 During multitasking, the brain is forced to make a choice about which information to process and productivity suffers, sometimes in dangerous ways.5

Or maybe you’re working on an important project and you hear the elusive ding announcing an email has arrived. It won’t hurt to look, right? Wrong. The quick change in your attention veers your brain way off track and efficiency plummets. Returning focus to the original task can take the brain an average of 15 minutes.6 And that’s just an email! What happens to our productivity when we continually take small breaks to check in with social media? It’s just not worth it.

Manage, don’t multitask. 

For those of us who can’t claim superhuman multitasking abilities, there are ways to improve our time and effort management to avoid multitasking and stay focused on top priorities.

  1. Avoid your phone. Maintain a proactive verses a reactive state by giving yourself at least an hour before checking email or social in the morning.7
  2. Keep distractions to a minimum. Close your email or turn off your ringer while “unitasking". Schedule social and email time into your day and avoid checking it outside of that schedule.8
  3. Make your daily plan. First thing in the morning, jot down a list of the most important tasks that require your attention. Stay on track by following your list throughout the day.9
  4. Commit to focus. If you feel your mind start to wander, bring it back to your priority before you let distraction take hold. Staying present and mindful keeps productivity high.10
  5. Say no. So many of us say yes to new projects or requests, even when we know we don’t have the time. Before taking else something on, ask yourself if you can give it your full attention. If not, gently say no or request a different timeline.11



1Greenwald, M., & Greenwald, M. (2018, October 11). 15 Signs You're a "Supertasker". Retrieved from opens in a new window

2, 4  Gupta, Dr. Sanjay. "Your brain on multitasking." CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Aug. 2017.
3, 5, 6 Atchley, Paul. "You Can't Multitask, So Stop Trying." Harvard Business Review. N.p., 23 July 2014. Web. 01 Aug. 2017.
7-11 Ishak, Raven. "11 Ways To Avoid Multitasking & Focus More Each Day." Bustle. Bustle, 25 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Aug. 2017.