Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

by Brandon Mercury on July 9, 2012 · 0 comments

Post image for Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

It is practically a necessity to be good a multi-tasker in today’s society. How many of us are guilty of talking on the phone while skimming through e-mails, and all the while supervising an unruly toddler? According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, 45% of American workers feel that they are expected to do too many tasks at one time.  Although multitasking enables us to accomplish multiple items on a to-do list at one time, is it worth our effort when all is said and done?  More and more studies are coming to the conclusion that the time-saving technique can actually cause us to be less effective, and leave us with reduced brain power to accomplish the rest of tasks we need to get done.

Research Proves Humans Can’t Multitask

Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, explains that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Switching from task to task, you think you’re paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said. “You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

Research has shown us that the act of switching between multiple tasks takes the brain longer to process. Regardless of the task at hand, when test subjects were asked to switch from one job to another – they always lost time. Furthermore, the more difficult the tasks were, the longer the time lapse in between. The same was found when subjects were tested with tasks they were unfamiliar with. Our brain’s inability to toggle from one chore to another leaves us doing a lot of busywork. We pride ourselves in working on multiple duties at once, but unfortunately we’re actually accomplishing very little.

Multitasking Can Equal Disaster

It takes the brain several tenths of a second to understand when it is being diverted, which can add up when a person is constantly switching tasks. A mere half second of time lost due to multitasking can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using their cell phone. During that infinitesimal amount of time that the driver is out of control, an accident can take place which may have otherwise been avoided.

Interruptions while working on a task can throw off our train of thought and make it difficult to come back to.  Over time, repeated distractions can cause stress and frustration, which ultimately leads to a decrease in attention. When our attention span is down, things get overlooked, errors are made, and the quality of our work becomes poor. We are essentially wearing out our brains too early on by overloading them with too many things at once. Our brains even send us warning signs that we are multitasking too often. Sometimes the warnings present themselves as short-term memory loss, in other cases it might be difficulty in concentration, or gaps in attentiveness.

Multitask With Caution

Multitasking is an effective tool when completing easy, thoughtless tasks – waiting for a computer to boot up while sorting through a stack of bills for example.  However, trying to simultaneously complete multiple items on your to-do list will negatively affect the quality of your work, your brain, and your attention span.  By diving into one task at a time and giving it your full attention, your mind will work more efficiently – letting you check items off that to-do list all day long.

About the Author

Brandon Mercury is a writer for He grew up on the beaches of the Deep South before moving to the mountain tops of Salt Lake City. He focuses his writing on home improvement and interior design topics. Brandon is an avid football and basketball fan. You can find Brandon on Google+