(This post is a first in a three-part series on “Multitasking“.)

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines multitasking as:

(of a person) deal with more than one task at the same time.

Multitasking does exist, but chances are it won’t work for most of you. Except for some “supertaskers“, most of us are not wired for multitasking, which is more than 97% of us. And if you happen to be one of those “supertaskers”, then you can stop reading this post right now.

Others equate multitasking to the figure of speech: Jack of all trades, master of none.

Multitasking itself isn’t the problem. Pretending we can “multitask” is. The brain isn’t capable of performing two cognitive tasks at the same time. When we try to multitask, we retain less and have more difficulty applying what we learn. Computers can do it, but most humans can’t.

Sure, there’re things we can do at the same time like exercising and listening to music, eating and talking, commuting and reading, walking and chewing gum, etc., but these activities don’t involve two or more mental tasks at the same time.

We think it’s the number of tasks we’re capable of juggling simultaneously that determines how productive we are. The reality is that we’re most effective and efficient when we do one thing at a time, fully absorbed, sequentially. The difference between trying to engage many things at once versus engaging with one thing for as long as possible is tremendous.

There’re job listings on the web where organizations list multitasking as a required skill, as if they can find these “miracle workers” with tentacles who can do it all. These organizations are deluding themselves by thinking that they can have their employees do it all, but they can’t.

There’re a few reasons why we think that we can multitask.

One reason we try to multitask is because we have a lack of clarity about what we should be doing at any given time. So we try to do it all and fool ourselves into thinking that we’re making progress.

We believe that it saves us time and energy and that we can actually accomplish more, which is not the case. In fact, the opposite couldn’t be more true.

We often don’t pause long enough to think about what we’re doing. Instead we jump to the next dopamine hit and allow our “scattered” monkey brain to take over our “calm” elephant brain.

We live in a culture where being busy is considered admirable and proof that we’re successful to the point of being seen as a matter of great pride. Trying to do multiple things at the same time can make us feel that we’re doing it all and that we have it all under control. We couldn’t be more wrong.

We’re worried that if we don’t try to do it all, we might forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. This only happens when we’re using our minds to hold those ideas/things instead of using an external system to our brain for managing those inputs.

Multitasking doesn’t work for a few reasons.

Work suffers when you divide your attention among multiple things because it prevents you from allocating the time and attention that is necessary to do a great job. Plus, it makes you more prone to errors and consumes more time and attention than you might think.

When you find yourself frequently switching between two or more cognitive tasks, it overloads the brain. There are mental costs involved with switching between tasks, which increases the time it takes to do our work by at least 25%, if not more. You might think that by trying to do many things at the same time, you’re being more efficient, but you’re probably mistaken. Not only are you inefficient, but more importantly, you’re ineffective. And again, it also makes you more prone to errors.

Trying to multitask also exhausts your mind, zaps cognitive resources and may result in early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers have been found to have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory area of the brain.

In the next post, I cover the benefits of doing only one thing at a time and why that may be your single biggest competitive advantage in this knowledge-driven global economy of the 21st century.

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