Think You Can Multitask? Scientists Say It’s Impossible.

by
Jim Carrey types away furiously.
Multitasking can make you feel almost superhuman.  You’re scanning emails and listening in on a conference call while chatting with your team on Slack and changing your six month old’s diaper with your elbows. The mental high this produces is palpable —  done, done, done, aaaand done!  You are empowered. You are amazing. You are… possibly less efficient that you think.

The American Psychological Association reports that multitasking may feel more efficient, but has hidden costs and that the term is misleading. 

Doing two (relatively complex) things at once is impossible. Multitasking is simply switching back and forth between tasks. When participants of an experiment published in 2001 were asked to switch between different tasks, they lost time—even more time when the task was unfamiliar or more complex. Think about it: counting from 1-10, then singing the ABCs—piece of cake, right Now try continuing this pattern: 1, 2, A, B, 3, 4, C, D… I can already hear you slowing down. 

In 2009, a research team at Stanford compared the performance of self-identified heavy and light multitaskers. Counterintuitively, they found that heavy multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking. They were more distracted by irrelevant information, retained less information, and worse at switching between tasks. The study was not designed to determine whether the heavy-multitasking caused the deficit or was caused by it. But the correlation is clear.

Office cats not being very productive.

If you think you are great at multi-tasking, you are probably kidding yourself. So stop kidding yourself and actually become more efficient. Here are some small steps you can take to start:
  1. Reduce the number of tabs you have on that browser—and if you can’t bear to kill them yourself, then install an extension like OneTab. (This will also free up to 95% of your browser’s memory — bonus!)
  2. Install an use an app like Self Control that blocks time stealing websites (Facebook, ahem) for a specific amount of time.
  3. Get a handle on your inbox. This is where things can really snowball and leave you feeling scattered. Knotable can help you simplify and tame those beastly Reply All email threads, and prioritize what’s important.

It is easier said that done, of course. I’m talking to my mother and listening to Morning Edition while I finish this post. Oh! My toast just popped up.

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