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Believing these 3 myths about multitasking may be ruining your productivity

Understanding how and when to multitask can help you get more effective work done.

Believing these 3 myths about multitasking may be ruining your productivity
[Photo: RAMSHA ASAD/Unsplash]

During a time when the boundaries between our work and our personal lives feel tenuous at best, multitasking feels like a natural solution.

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Working from home means juggling Zoom calls and coworker Slacks and deadlines—not to mention interruptions from your kids or spouse or roommates. Sometimes it’s impossible to focus on just one task at a time. It can feel great to half-listen in a meeting while also messaging a teammate to get an update on that project. Look at you, getting twice as much done! But there are lots of times where multitasking can actually set you back at work.

More than just power-walking while chatting to a friend, or preparing dinner and listening to an audiobook, multitasking at work often involves attempting to complete two cognitively demanding activities simultaneously.

The ability to switch between tasks often makes you feel like you’re getting a lot done, but several studies have shown that this constant routine of switching gears isn’t an effective way to make progress and can take a toll on our brains. Not only can this habit sap your energy, but constant multitasking can make it seem more appealing, creating an addictive cycle.

In fact, some experts say if you’re unable to sit down and do deep work, it may be time to consider if you’re in the right job. Feeling fulfilled in a role is one thing, but if you can’t even concentrate, that may not be a good sign for long-term professional progress.

Obviously there are times during this pandemic where we all have to multitask, especially if you’re a parent. But there also may be times where you’re opting to do multiple tasks simultaneously when it’s actually the less efficient choice. Understanding these three common multitasking myths can help you manage your time more productively:

1. You feel a sense of accomplishment, so you must be getting a lot done.

Hate to break it to you, multitaskers: This feeling of accomplishment is a false sensation.

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Multitaskers often get addicted to this cycle of small-scale accomplishment (and usually executed at a suboptimal level) without realizing they are spending more time completing their work than if they had chosen to stick to one task.

The singular approach is called monotasking—which means cutting out the jumping around and focusing deeply on just one project.

2. You save energy by switching between tasks.

The truth is that when you force yourself to shift from one mentally taxing job to another, you are not only wasting time but also draining your energy reserves.

Moreover, when you quickly pivot to the next “to-do” item, you leave the phantom-like presence of the last task in your thoughts. This is called “attention residue,” which is as unappealing as it sounds. Basically it’s the idea that although you have moved on to your next task, your brain is left contemplating the previous one.

Here’s an unsettling fact: Even a quick glance between an article you’re reading to your inbox can “drastically reduce your cognitive function,” Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, tells Fast Company.

3. You get better at multitasking the more you do it.

Fast Company reporter and editor Lydia Dishman confesses to being a reformed multitasker. While working to wean herself off multitasking, she realized that it was a much more difficult habit to cut out, especially with assorted forms of technology competing for our attention (and offering us resulting instant gratification).

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We can only successfully perform simple, rote tasks when multitasking. As Fast Company contributor Art Markman points out, nonchallenging, intellectually simpler tasks are usually okay to juggle at once; these are often habitual activities that don’t overly tax the working memory.

But for more demanding, complex tasks, it’s important to direct your best self toward these efforts, or suffer the consequences of poor performance.

If you are attempting to complete two tasks at once, it’s a far-fetched idea to think both will result in fantastic work. Says Markman, “You’ll likely get worse at both of them.”

According to research from Stanford, the more people multitask, the more they are training their brains to be scattered, and the less they are able to be creative or develop emotional intelligence. In some cases, it can even drop your IQ by multiple points, so that your brain becomes as well-performing as an 8-year-old’s.

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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