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The Myth of Multitasking: Why doing less is better

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

There is a misguided belief that multitasking is a good idea. Basically it is thought that if you are able to do more than one thing at the same time, then you are able to get more done. Unfortunately, the reality of this is quite the opposite. Like most things, it might be helpful to examine this issue on a continuum. On one end you have tasks that need to happen at the same time (for example, breathing and walking) and at the other end you have tasks that should never happen together (for example, texting and driving).

Usually when one talks about multitasking, one is specifically talking about someone trying to do more than one task at the same time that requires your attention or focus. To be fair, breathing and walking do not fall into this category because they both require different parts of your brain and you can do both without focusing on them. Other tasks (such as talking on the phone, reading, writing an email) require the same brain function (your attention and focus) and therefore cannot be done at the same time. At best you can quickly switch back and forth from one task to another. A quick way to test this out is by using your visual focus. We often tell others to “look someone in the eyes” when you speak to them. This is not actually what we do. In fact, when you look someone “in the eyes” you are actually looking at one of their eyes. You may even switch back and forth between their eyes, but you are in fact only looking at one eye at a time. If you actually try to “look someone in the eyes” your vision goes out of focus and you see a blurry face. But saying “look someone in the eye” just sounds weird to say.

So if we establish that we cannot do more than one focus-requiring task at one time, then instead of multitasking, we are in fact talking about task-switching. If you have your email up on one screen and a news article up on another screen, you can only read one at a time. When your email dings to let you know that a new message has come in, you stop reading the news article, orient yourself to your email program, read the name of the sender, consider opening and reading the message, read the message, decide what to do next (reply, delete, ignore), and then switch back to the news article (which then requires that you find where you left off reading, remind yourself of what you last read so you understand what you are reading next, and begin reading again). Some research has shown that we lose anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes each time we leave one task to check/respond to an email or text. Given the number of emails and texts that most of us get each day, it’s a wonder we get anything accomplished.

In addition to losing time that we will never get back, regularly switching our attention to emails/phone/texts also impacts our IQ. Switching form task to task has been shown to impair people’s cognitive functioning more than losing a night’s sleep and more than smoking marijuana. So while it may feel like you are being more productive juggling multiple tasks at once, the juggling is actually slowing you down significantly.

So what is one to do?

  • Simply put, in order to be more productive and focused, do less.
  • Eliminate the wasted time spent switching from task to task and spend that time accomplishing your goals.
  • Specifically, dedicate your time and attention to one task at a time.
  • Turn off your email alerts.
  • Silence your phone.
  • Schedule a time (or a couple of times) during the day that is dedicated to checking and responding to emails/texts.
  • Reduce distractions. If your workspace is not conducive to focusing on your work, try finding a place that is and do important work there.
  • And most of all, drop the false belief that multitasking means that you are being more productive. It doesn’t.

For more ideas on how to reduce distractions and organize your time, call LCL.


Shawn Healy, Ph.D.




CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns

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