Do you juggle several tasks at once during your workday? If so, multitasking probably tops your list of skills. But is multitasking really beneficial to productivity? There’s a lot of research that suggests it hurts productivity, rather than helps it.
Multitasking decreases productivity
Many people assume that multitasking can improve their productivity. After all, if you can send emails during a meeting, or scan reports while listening to a conference call, you’re being more productive, right?
One study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students took far longer to solve complicated math problems when required to switch to other tasks. In fact, they were 40 percent slower than those that didn’t have to keep switching. The study suggests that no one actually multitasks; in reality, they just do a whole lot of “task-switching.”
As you go from project to project, your brain has to reboot, in a sense. You spend additional brainpower getting back up to speed on one project just in time to switch to another. Overall, it results in a loss of productivity.
“Infomania” brought on by multitasking could lower your IQ
A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry and covered by BBC News shows the disturbing effect of multitasking.
The report indicates an increasing addiction to technology, with people checking emails and text messages constantly when they should be paying attention to something else like a conference call.
The constant barrage of messages, which researchers termed “infomania,” was shown to result in a 10-point decrease in IQ among participants. Interestingly, the study also notes that this “infomania”-related IQ drop is more than twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana and IQ.
Practice doesn’t make perfect
You might think, “I’ve been multitasking for so long that I’m a well-oiled machine.” Well, research from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that heavy multitaskers are actually worse at juggling jobs than light multitaskers.
This is because heavy multitaskers are so consumed with the act of juggling tasks that they’re easily distracted by irrelevant information. Light multitaskers, who were doing fewer tasks, were more focused and able to get more accomplished.
This is one case where practice doesn’t make perfect. There are some solid tactics for improving productivity, but multitasking just isn’t one of them.
The cons of multitasking
While research supports the disadvantage of multitasking, here are some common-sense reasons that multitasking just doesn’t work for businesses:
1. Quality of work could suffer
If you work on two things at once, you aren’t devoting your attention to any one thing. With limited focus, you’re bound to make mistakes. For example, if you’re trying to troubleshoot an issue for a client on the phone while answering emails, you won’t do either accurately because you’re not truly focusing on either task.
2. Limited focus
Because you’re trying to juggle several tasks, you might rush through them. By focusing on each task separately, you’re more likely to give each chore the focus it deserves.
3. Less productivity
In the end, trying to multitask hurts your productivity. Your brain simply can’t juggle several tasks at once efficiently. Try implementing “single-tasking” instead.
More ways to improve productivity without multitasking
If multitasking only hurts your output, what can you do to deal with the glut of emails, texts, and stacks of reports on your desk? Here are a few tips to increase productivity without trying to balance several projects at once.
1. Organize your day
At the beginning of your day, make a list of priorities. Write them on a piece of paper, organize your tasks in Basecamp—it doesn’t matter. Just keep a list that makes it easy for you to track your progress. Sometimes just being aware of the fact that it’s taking a long time to get things done can be a good first step toward re-focusing your work-time.
A few times a year, track how you’re spending your time. Run a timer and record how long you spend on each task. This can give you some insight into the rabbit holes that are the most problematic for you, so you can be more strategic about avoiding them.
2. Limit your email time
Is your afternoon lost to email after email? It’s a common problem. Try to set aside a set chunk of time to dedicate to emails. Try twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Close your email browser except when you’re actually answering email so you can focus on what you’re actually doing, rather than being distracted every time a new email comes in. Don’t let a futile quest for inbox zero affect your real work.
3. Limit time on non-essential websites
Are you losing time scrolling through Facebook or LinkedIn? While it may only seem like five minutes here and 10 minutes there, few people can accurately estimate the passage of time. In other words, you’re spending more time than you think scrolling through feeds and checking blogs.
4. Try to work in 90-minute intervals
What’s the optimum time to work on a project? Ninety minutes, according to research from Florida State University. Those who work longer than 90-minute intervals move into a state of physiological fatigue. Parse out your time as an experiment and run a timer. Try to work on a single project for 20 minutes. Note how many times you feel compelled to distraction—checking email is a good example of a compulsion that we’re barely aware of that can really suck time and focus.
5. Take a break
After your 90-minute work session, step away for a 10-minute break. Don’t try to “power through” a project by drinking caffeine or forcing yourself to remain at your desk. Short intervals of work followed by quick breaks are best.
Tip: Keep a list of everything you need to accomplish. Write it on a piece of paper, organize your tasks in Basecamp—it doesn’t matter. Just keep a list that makes it easy for you to track your progress. Sometimes just being aware of the fact that it’s taking a long time to get things done can be a good first step toward re-focusing your work-time.
There are lots of ways to increase your productivity and lots of ways to succumb to distraction—which can actually be really stressful. If you often find yourself thinking, “where did the time go?” try some of these tips to limit multitasking and get a better sense of how you’re really spending your time.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015. It was revised in 2018.