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Is Multitasking a Myth? Why Less Means More When It Comes To Productivity

By Rebecca Kesner

Up until now - multitasking has been something to be celebrated. A real skill that not everyone possesses. A proud moment when you get 2 things simultaneously ticked off your to-do list. There’s even been… An ever-so-slight amount of smugness surrounding it. Multitasking has been a badge of honor worn proudly by those people who managed to briskly mow the lawn, stick dinner in the oven - all whilst catching up on the family Whatsapp messages. 

The award for time management goes to... 

But hang on a minute, why is your best friend replying to something you put on the family group? What’s that burning smell coming from the oven? And heads-up - you might want to go back over those lawn edges - they still look a bit scruffy.

Let’s try something - with your right hand in the air, draw a circle. Now raise your left hand and draw a triangle at the same time.  

Tricky isn’t it. 

Practical or cognitive - multitasking can result in not paying attention to the task in hand. There's a suggestion that today's nonstop multitasking wastes more time than it saves—and multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive. In this article we'll explore the concept of what multitasking is, delve into the scientific research that debunks the myth of multitasking, and provide practical strategies to help you maximize your productivity and focus.

Understanding Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficiency

Man wearing suit and pants vacuuming whilst answering emails.

The Three Types of Multitasking

Multitasking as a general term refers to the attempt to perform two or more unrelated tasks at once. However, psychologists have identified three distinct forms of multitasking:

  • Multitasking: Attempting to do two or more tasks simultaneously. For example, answering emails while listening to a podcast.

  • Context Switching: Switching back and forth between tasks. It's that feeling when you have lots to do, and you want to make progress on each task. This can mean quickly alternating between different projects. This type of multi-tasking requires a swift mental shift to adjust to a new set of information, goals, or requirements.

  • Attention Residue: Attention residue occurs when we perform a series of tasks in rapid succession, without fully completing one before moving on to the next. The concept of attention residue suggests that the details of the previous task can distract or compete for attention during the subsequent task. This can lead to reduced focus, decreased productivity, and increased errors or inefficiencies in the new task.

The Limitations of Multitasking

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not an effective way to increase productivity. In fact, studies have shown that attempting to divide our attention between multiple tasks leads to decreased performance and increased stress levels. The brain splits its gray matter in two when working on two different tasks. Instead of using all gray matter to work on one task, the brain uses half of its gray matter on one task and the other half on another.

Some research suggests the more people multitask, the more debilitating it can become. A study of young adults showed that media multitaskers may have trouble focussing even when they’re not working on multiple tasks at once. This is because media multitaskers are constantly searching for dopamine hits via social rewards.

Other research has shown that attempting to multitask actually takes longer to complete tasks compared to focusing on one task at a time. A study conducted by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer found that when participants had to switch between tasks, there was a delay in their response time, known as "switching-time costs." These costs were higher when the rules for the tasks were more complex, meaning that it took participants longer to adjust to the new rules.

According to Dr. David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, our brains simply do not have the capacity to handle multiple complex tasks simultaneously. When we engage in multitasking, our focus time becomes divided, and our cognitive resources are spread thin. As a result, we’re unable to devote our full focus and concentration to any one task, leading to decreased efficiency and an increased chance of errors. 

The Detrimental Effects of Multitasking

Mental Overload and Burnout

When we engage in multitasking, our brains become overloaded with information. This mental overload can result in decreased cognitive performance and an impaired ability to make decisions effectively. 

Research conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell found that even when people switch predictably between two tasks, they still experience a delay in task-switching compared to repeating the same task. This delay is known as the "switch cost." The time taken to adjust mental control settings and the competition caused by carry-over of control settings from the previous task contribute to this switch cost.

Increased Stress and Decreased Well-being

Multitasking not only affects our cognitive performance but also takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being. When we attempt to divide our attention between multiple tasks, we experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. The constant switching of focus and the pressure to complete tasks can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

Multitasking can lead to a decreased sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Everybody loves a list. There's a real sense of achievement as you start ticking things off. Constantly switching between tasks without fully completing them means we miss out on the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a task. This can leave us feeling unfulfilled and perpetually chasing the next item on our to-do list.

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Strategies for Optimal Focus and Productivity

Now that we understand the detrimental effects of multitasking, let's explore strategies that can help us break free from the multitasking trap and improve our focus and productivity. Here are some practical tips to help you stay focused and accomplish tasks more efficiently:

Prioritize and Plan

Start by prioritizing your tasks and creating a clear plan of action. Identify the most important tasks that require your full attention and allocate dedicated time slots for each task. By focusing on one task at a time, you can give it your undivided attention and maximize your productivity.

Minimize Distractions

Eliminate or minimize distractions that can derail your focus. Close unnecessary browser tabs, mute notifications on your devices, and if you can, put your phone out of sight. Create a designated workspace that's free from distractions. By creating an environment conducive to concentration, you can reduce the temptation to multitask and stay focused on the task at hand.

Practice Time Blocking

Time blocking is a technique that involves scheduling specific blocks of time for different tasks or activities. By allocating dedicated time slots for specific tasks, you'll ensure you have uninterrupted focus. If you're prone to multitasking, the chances are you have a competitive personality. Time blocking means it's you against the clock. Don't let those other competitors sabotage your personal best when it comes to getting things done. Look for resources to help with time management. Use a calendar or productivity app to schedule your time blocks and stick to the allocated time for each task.

Single-tasking and Flow State

Embrace the concept of single tasking. Also known as mono tasking, it involves dedicating your full attention to one task at a time. By immersing yourself and getting 'in the zone', you can achieve a state of flow where you're fully absorbed in a task. This will help achieve higher levels of productivity and produce higher-quality work.

Take Regular Breaks

While it may seem counterintuitive, taking regular breaks can actually improve productivity and focus. Our brains need time to rest and recharge. Incorporate short breaks into your work schedule to relax and recharge.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a powerful technique for enhancing focus and reducing the urge to multitask. By practicing mindfulness, you can train your brain to stay present and fully engaged in the task at hand. Incorporate mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or meditation, into your daily routine to cultivate a sense of calm and focus.

Delegate and Collaborate

Recognize that you don't have to do everything yourself. Delegate tasks that can be handled by others and collaborate with colleagues to share the workload. By leveraging the strengths and skills of others, you can free up your own time and energy to focus on high-priority tasks that require your expertise.

Set Realistic Expectations

Avoid overloading yourself with an unrealistic number of tasks and deadlines. Set realistic expectations for what you can accomplish within a given timeframe and prioritize tasks accordingly. By setting achievable goals, you can reduce the temptation to multitask and minimize the stress associated with an overwhelming workload.

Find Tools That Work for You

Harness the power of technology tools to aid your focus and productivity. Utilize productivity apps and software that can help you organize tasks, manage deadlines, and minimize distractions. Explore time management techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working in focused bursts with short breaks in between.

Practice Self-care

Finally, prioritize self-care to ensure optimal cognitive function and well-being. Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, and engage in regular physical exercise. Taking care of your physical and mental health is crucial for maintaining focus, productivity, and overall well-being.

Is Multitasking a Myth?

The research indicates that the art of doing multiple things at once — is nearly impossible. 

But realistically, modern life demands a certain amount of plate spinning. So how can we boost our focus to better handle multiple tasks.

Nootropics are a great place to start. Nootropics can improve and enhance short term memory, long range memory, attention, mental processing and other aspects of cognitive performance.

Mind Lab Pro® is the only nootropic brain supplement that’s scientifically proven to work. Using premium grade research-backed ingredients. Ethically sourced and with a clean label, its whole-brain-boosting ingredients may help multitaskers increase productivity while switching between tasks.

The 100% natural ingredients in Mind Lab Pro® allow you to:

  • Process information quickly and easily.

  • Zero-in on difficult tasks, filtering out distractions.

  • Remember names and faces. Recall details accurately.

  • Find words more easily. Speaking fluently and effectively.

  • Think clearly and react quickly. Even when tired or under stress.

Our Universal Nootropic™ supports memory, enhances attention and mediates responses to stress, which can all be hindered by multitasking, aging and more.

And just one more time - Mind Lab Pro® is the only nootropic brain supplement that’s scientifically proven to work.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This article is an opinion and explanation of current research given by the author. It is not an expression of a medical diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on as such.

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