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The great big multitasking myth: why it makes you less efficient

Whether you’re looking to be more efficient at work, at university or in your morning routine, productivity hacks are everywhere. Tackle the hardest task first, get your head around the science of motivation, get an indoor plant, download an app – you get the idea.

Perhaps the most popular productivity hack of all is multitasking. Do two things at once and you get more done and save oodles of time, right? Wrong.  The human brain can’t do two things at once – it can only switch between the two as quickly as possible.

And, crucially, this switching leads to lower productivity. Yep, trying to do more means you actually do less. ‘We make mistakes and take longer to complete tasks when we try to do multiple things at once,’ says Dr Gillian Clark from Deakin’s School of Psychology.

Here’s what you need to know about the multitasking myth – and how to use it to your advantage to be more productive.

Can humans multitask?

The simple answer is no, not really – your brain has limited resources for attention. If you’re working on one task, you can allocate enough attention to get that task done.

It is possible to split your attention if you’re working on several simple tasks – think walking and talking, or making a sandwich and listening to a podcast.

But when you try to focus on multiple tasks that aren’t automatic, you run into trouble. ‘We reach a limit and our brain doesn’t have the capacity to allocate attention to everything all at once,’ Dr Clark says.

This is when the switching kicks in. ‘One way our brain can deal with this problem is by switching between tasks,’ Dr Clark says. ‘This can feel as though we’re focusing on multiple things at once, but our brain is more likely focusing on one thing, then switching to another, then switching back and so on.’

Multitasking at work

Whether you’re juggling tricky emails at work or studying while chatting with a friend, the cost of switching tasks is anything but productive, says Dr Clark. ‘This switching to and from is really inefficient,’ she says. ‘Because it is the case that only one task is being focused on at once, it means that we miss things, make mistakes and slow down on all of the tasks we’re switching between. Multitasking generally lowers productivity.’

'This can feel as though we’re focusing on multiple things at once, but our brain is more likely focusing on one thing, then switching to another, then switching back and so on.'

Dr Gillian Clark,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

And the research backs Dr Clark up. One recent study found driving and talking on the phone simultaneously results in more driving errors – and less awareness of your errors. Research that looked at students who use their smartphone or watch TV while studying or listening to lectures revealed they tended to have lower productivity, retain less information and achieve lower marks than students who didn’t multitask.

Even medical professionals aren’t immune. Research examining emergency doctors who deal with multiple patients, nurses and paperwork at the same time shows multitasking can lead to errors in writing prescriptions or leaving tasks unfinished.

The multitasking myth is so strong that people who think they are better multitaskers are actually worse at switching between tasks.

How to work efficiently

Want to increase your productivity? The most effective strategy is to focus on one thing at a time. Just. One.

‘Avoid distractions and interruptions – close your email, don’t answer your phone and make it clear you’re busy and not to be disturbed,’ Dr Clark says. ‘You might not be able to only do a single task for a whole day, so allocate blocks of time for each task and ensure you focus only on the assigned task during the allotted time.’

If there are simple tasks that can be automated through practice, you might be able to complete two tasks at the same time. But for anything challenging or new or varied, ‘allocate as much of your attention to one task at a time as you can’, says Dr Clark.

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Dr Gillian Clark
Dr Gillian Clark

Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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