6 Reasons Multitasking Destroys Your Productivity


It’s so hard to resist the temptation... checking your e-mail when your work gets difficult or boring, texting dinner plans at 2 in the afternoon, scrolling through your Facebook feed while on the phone...

Multitasking, as you probably well know, is a person juggling more than one task at a time.

But doesn’t multitasking make me more productive? I feel like I get more done when I’m doing multiple things simultaneously...

Wrong. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves that we’re being more productive by multitasking because research shows us several reasons why it’s simply not true.

Reason #1. Lower IQ

A study conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry found that multitasking (usually in the form of incoming e-mail and phone calls) lowers your IQ by as much as 10 points.

To put it in perspective, your IQ minus 10 points is twice the effect of smoking marijuana (marijuana lowers your IQ by 5 points). Unwrapping it a bit more, minus 10 points also places your IQ somewhere near the same vicinity if you had stayed awake all night.

Essentially, you're accomplishing the same amount of work when multitasking as if you came to work high or didn’t sleep the night before.

Reason #2. Shrinks your brain

As though a lower IQ wasn’t enough reason to put the phone on silent, there’s reason to believe that the cognitive impairment from multitasking isn’t temporary. Research suggests that repeated multitasking can alter the structure of your brain over time... yes, alter the structure of your brain!

A study done in the in UK found a correlation between the amount of time people spent interacting with multiple devices, and less density in the anterior cingulate cortex. (the region of your brain involved in making decisions, empathy, impulse control, and some emotions)

To summarize: more time spent multitasking = less density in an important part of your brain.

Reason #3. Less focused

When you’re used to shifting between multiple streams of incoming information, you will have more difficulty focusing on a single task.

Dr. Clifford Nass, late professor at Stanford University, found that students who multitask have poor focus, working memory, and struggled to switch effectively between tasks.

In his words, multitaskers are "suckers for distraction and suckers for the irrelevant, and so the more irrelevant information they see, the more they're attracted to it."

Multitasking steals your attention from your important work and giving it to the irrelevant.

Reason #4: Less productive

While most people feel like they are accomplishing more by completing tasks simultaneously, the opposite is actually true: multitaskers are less productive than someone completing one task at at a time.

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that people who multitask took longer to complete tasks than those who focused on one task at a time.

"In some cases they were 50 percent less efficient and accurate”

a study by Basex found that office distractions take up 2.1 hours of the average day with 28% of the workers needing an average of five minutes to recover from each interruption and return to their tasks.”

Reason #5: Added stress

Do you constantly feel stressed? Does it seem like the more work you do the more there remains to be done? Multitasking is another culprit here, creating an added feeling of stress, or being always ‘on,’ even when off work.

Researchers at UC Irvine found that employees with constant access to office e-mail, usually a smartphone connected with work e-mail, stayed in a "high alert" mode with a faster heart-beat.

Employees without constant e-mail access, (less tempted to multi-task) had lower heart rates and lower stress levels.

The effects of multitasking stay around after the tasks are completed, continuing to affect your focus and clarity of thought.

Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, says:

           “And it's not only the physical act of multitasking that causes stress; it's the     consequences, as well," says Winch. "If you do poorly on an exam because you studied while watching a baseball game on TV, that can certainly trigger a lot of stress—even self-esteem issues and depression."

Remember that multitasking over time causes less density in the anterior cingulate cortex?

Well, prolonged stress can have a similar effect, and, according to neuropsychologist Dr. Jordan Grafman, can cause brain cells in the hippocampus to die.

The hippocampus is the area of the brain critical to storing new memories, essential to one's ability to learn new skills.

"Multi-tasking, almost by its very nature, of course, creates stress. And long-term stress, in turn, is likely to make us less able to multi-task. It's a humbling lesson in the limits we face. If you're multitasking, and it's very stressful, you're not going to get better at it."

In other words multitasking creates stress, and that stress makes us less able to multitask. The longer you do it, the worse you get at it, not better.

#6: Less Creative

Juggling multiple tasks at once taxes your pre-frontal cortex, responsible for working memory. Humans don't have an unlimited supply of working memory. When your store of working memory is taxed by multi-tasking, it takes away the idle times your brain needs to put things together.

A study done in 2010 by the University of Illinois found that multitaskers minds were too busy, not leaving enough ‘space’ to daydream and therefore hindered their creative thinking abilities.

           "Too much focus can actually harm performance on creative problem-solving           tasks," the authors wrote in their 2010 study. With so much already going on in their heads, they suggest, multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous 'A-HA moments.'"

Research shows that when your mind is idle is often when you're the most creative. If your brain is always thinking about the next task you need to complete it doesn't get a chance to be idle.

A Harvard Business School professor found that workers who set aside as little as an hour and a half a day of focused time resulted in being more productive, more creative, and happier than those who didn't set aside the focused time.

4 Ways to Stop

Once developed, the habit of multitasking is difficult to break. Here are a few ways to help you kick the habit and make you more productive. Some of these overlap with our 13 Everyday Tips to Increase Your Productivity but are worth repeating.

  1. Prioritize - Try using the 80/20 rule: 20% of the work you do has 80% impact and effectiveness. Narrow down your tasks to the most important ones (the 20%) then focus on doing them one at a time.
  2. Schedule - Set aside specific times for uninterrupted work, and then times to do those tasks that interfere with your work time like e-mail, texting, or social media. By scheduling you can free up your mind to focus better on the task at hand.
  3. Delegate - Does that task need to be done but it doesn't fall under the 80/20 rule of being most important? Find ways to delegate work that doesn't have to be done by you to free up more time.
  4. Banish interruptions! This ties back to the scheduling. Get off your e-mail and turn off the phone. Shut the door to the office or go find a lonely corner of the library to work in. Try it for an hour everyday and see how much more productive you can be.
  5. (Bonus) Install WhereDat on your phone. It's the only launcher that works on muscle memory and keeps you in focus. If you need to text someone because it's related to your current task, WhereDat will get you straight into the thread with that specific person, skipping all the distractions from other people in your multiple conversations screen. Furthermore, you can start writing your message to them inside WhereDat, and only then choose the texting app you want to use with the message.

Have any other tips for ditching the multitasking habit? Let us know by commenting below!


Other resources: 

Journal of Experimental Psychology - Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 2001; 27(4): 763-797.


Psychology Today


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