The Illusion of Multitasking (Part I): Why It's Time to Let It Go

by - July 16, 2018

wellbeingandhealth. wellbeingandwellness, wellnesswithinyou, selfcaretips, motivationmonday, inspirationalwords, positivewords

If you look up the definition of multitasking it will generally be something along the lines of "dealing with more than one task at a time". However, our brains are not actually doing two things simultaneously (e.g. working on a project, while responding to a telephone or email query), the human brain is only switching between tasks. We are simply not capable of doing them together at the same time, we just create the false impression of doing so. This is why multitasking in humans (computing is a whole different story!) is not what we think it is. In fact, it's more of an illusion rather than an effective skill.

Studies on multitasking and its impact have been carried out for decades. A high percentage of the published research out there agrees that multitasking is a modern myth that we continue to perpetuate. Yet at the same time you won't be surprised by the amount of job postings looking for a "skilled and efficient multitasker". There's no such thing as an efficient multitasker, simply because there's no such thing as a human multitasker in the first place. Research has shown us countless times how ineffective and outdated this belief is, but it seems that employers and team managers still demand it from their staff. The same applies to us individually - we also delude ourselves that daily multitasking is helping us get quickly through our task list. Let's have a brief look at some of the most recent research and learn a little more about the brain mechanisms involved.

Neuroscientists (Lahnakoski et al., 2017) measured individuals' brain activity using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) as they watched six-minute video excerpts from three different sources consequently and also interleaving (i.e. mixing signals by alternating between them). Results revealed that alternating between the videos caused disruption in a number of brain areas, which together are responsible for supporting integration of events in coherent sequences, such as the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning), medial occipital cortex (visual processing centre) and the cerebellum (balance and coordination). Therefore, the disruption that task switching can cause to some of our brain processes translates to our everyday work.

Instead of making us more efficient, multitasking distracts and make us lose time. Christine Rosen (2008) argues that multitasking is more about how well we utilise our abilities to pay attention, shift attention and decide which tasks are worthy of receiving our attention. When we are tempted to occupy our time with more than one task at hand, we are triggering our inattention.

A very recent study by Yildrim and Dark (2018) found that media multitasking (i.e. using more than one type of media at a time) is linked with lower levels of mindfulness and higher tendency to experience mind wandering. Habitual media multitaskers may struggle with stopping their minds from wandering, because their brain processing is affected by consistent and frequent switching between mediums. This decreases their ability to sustain their attention on one task. In the long-term this can lead to compromising our innate ability to stay focused and also present.

Focusing on a single task at a time can only boost our concentration and eliminate distracting urges. And one of the best things about our brains is that we can "re-train" them to forgo the illusionary need to do several things simultaneously.

In the second part of this series we are going to share with you a couple of practical suggestions on how to get rid of the need to multitask, which you can apply in your day-to-day life.

Until then, have a week of love and ease!


Lahnakoski, JM., Jääskeläinen, IP., Sams, M., Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Neural Mechanisms for Integrating Consecutive and Interleaved Natural Events, Human Brain Mapping, 38:3360-3376, Wiley Periodicals.

Rosen, C. (2008). The Myth of Multitasking, The New Atlantis, Spring, No 20, pp. 105-110, JSTOR.

Yildrim, C., & Dark, V. (2018). The Mediating Role of Mindfulness in the Relationship between Media Multitasking and Mind Wandering, TechMindSociety'18 Proceedings of the Technology, Mind and Society, 45.

In Daily Motivation we will lead the fight to stay motivated, whether it's about your job, the boring tasks you have to deal with, the workplace-built intolerance, finding the strength and time for your real passions, follow what truly makes you happy, or just live and wake up without the daunting feeling of having to go through another rushed day.

Previously on Daily Motivation - Why You Don't Need to Seek Validation from a Job Title

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