Multitasking: Are You Under the Influence?

We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re magically doing more than one thing at a time.

The grand delusion that is known as multitasking can be defined as this:

The attempt to “consciously perform two or more tasks simultaneously.


Notice the word “consciously” because your subconscious mind happens to be a master at multitasking.

In fact, your subconscious mind can perform billions of calculations per second effortlessly and without input from your conscious mind as it orchestrates your heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and everything else required to keep you alive. While it’s doing all that, you can safely assign it the task of driving your automobile while you cruise down the highway daydreaming.

Your “conscious” mind, however, is incapable of multiple, simultaneous calculations. It can do one thing at a time — that’s it.

If you’re about to protest by citing examples of your ability to watch TV while writing a report, then you’ve landed on the very point of this writing … because that belief is a delusion.

Why Your Conscious Mind Is Incapable of Multitasking

When you attempt to watch TV and write a report, you rapidly shift your focus from watching TV to writing your report, but you’re not doing both at the same time.

In fact, this is where the inefficiency comes into play. A great deal of energy is burned up in high-speed mental travel as your brain switches focus from the television program to your report and back again.

You might be thinking, “I’m different. When I multitask, I accomplish both tasks with perfect aplomb, so who cares if I’m shifting my attention back and forth?”

But that’s just it!

We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re magically doing more than one thing at a time, but in reality, we’re just switching from doing one thing inefficiently to doing another thing inefficiently.

Suppose you’re at your computer and begin to write a sales letter to a potential client. You focus your mind on the task at hand and begin to type when suddenly, your email prompt goes off.

Because the cognitive rules for writing a sales letter are different than those for reading an email, your brain must disengage from the section of the brain required to write the sales letter and enlist different neurons in a different part of your brain to attend to your email.

Now, if you were going to respond to the email, your brain’s switchboard is once again consulted, requiring a two-part message: First, your brain must disengage from the act of reading an email, and second, it must go to another part of your brain to find the protocols for writing a response to the email.

Now, here’s the thing: Each time you switch focus, your brain must become aware of the desire to switch, then disengage, and then focus on the new desire to enlist the section of your brain responsible for the new task. And that is precisely why we’re incapable of multitasking; the conscious brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention or process two different things simultaneously.

Multitasking is a Myth

For example, time yourself to figure out how quickly you can do this simple exercise below.

Using a pencil and paper, print out the following statement:


After you have printed it out, write a corresponding number under each letter below that statement, as shown below. (Don’t forget to time yourself for how long it takes to complete both tasks.)

How quickly did you perform the above exercise?

Now, time yourself doing the same exercise; only this time you will combine the tasks.

For example, Print the letter “M” and immediately below it write the number 1. Then, print the letter “U,” and immediately below it, write the number 2, and so on. (Don’t forget to time yourself)

How long did it take this time when ALL you had to do was switch your focus back and forth between letters and numbers?

If you’re like most people, it took you at least twice as long.

What Caused the Difference in Time?

In the first exercise, your brain focused on writing a sequence of letters and then on a sequence of numbers. In the second exercise, your brain had to toggle between tasks as it engaged and disengaged between accessing where you store your recollection of letters and where you store your recollection of numbers.

Although “switching costs” may be relatively small — sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch — they can add up to large amounts of time and energy expended when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. This is precisely why attempting to multitask is so inefficient and taxing. It drains our energy and kills our productivity.

The Hidden Cost of Multitasking

One of the pivotal studies on multitasking reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2001 by researchers Rubinstein, Meyer, and Evansfound that people who switch between tasks, especially complex ones, become dramatically less efficient.

The study found that participants who completed tasks in parallel were 50% more likely to make mistakes and 40% less productive than those who completed the same tasks in sequence because of all the wasted time and effort from switching from one task to another.

Is Multitasking Ever Appropriate?

It’s totally appropriate during times of leisure. If you happen to be watching TV while surfing the net and engaging with friends on social media, that’s perfectly fine … provided none of these activities require your full concentration.

However, if you’re involved in any activity that requires focused thought, and you’re still attempting to multitask, you’re not only fooling yourself, you’re wasting your irreplaceable resource of time.

If truth be told, multitasking is often a convenient excuse to cross off the simpler items on our to-do list while we judiciously skirt the toughest tasks; more often than not, it’s procrastination in disguise.

Human Beings Are Incapable of “Consciously” Multitasking

If you learn to accept this truism and forever eliminate the delusion that you’re the exception — that somehow you’re just too busy to not multitask — your productivity will increase dramatically. You’ll find more free time than you thought possible and quantifiably reduce any feelings of stress or anxiety.

When it comes to multitasking and doing something important … don’t!