Like you, I’m busy. In an effort to keep up, sometimes I choose to pile more onto my plate than I can handle. It’s like I think I’m superwoman. Sure, I can call my mom to talk about summer vacation plans while I make dinner and help my kids with their homework!
But I know I’m not alone in this, right? We’re all guilty of multitasking and trying to squeeze just one more thing into our crazy schedules at any given moment.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but when we multitask, we’re actually doing more harm than good. Multitasking makes us more stressed, less productive, and quickly makes us feel out of balance.
What Is Multitasking?
Multitasking is doing (or attempting to do) two or more things at the same time. It’s trying to talk to your spouse about their day while answering emails. Or taking an order from a customer while checking inventory. It’s eating breakfast while putting on makeup and listening to the news . . . on your morning commute. Yikes.
About 15 years ago, the arrival of the smart phone made multitasking an everyday (or every hour) experience, helping us be more productive than ever. Or, at least, we think we’re more productive than ever.
Does Multitasking Make You More Productive?
Multitasking does not help you get more done faster. In fact, it makes you less efficient and more stressed. Multitasking used to be celebrated by self-help and efficiency gurus, but the science now shows that it’s actually a horrible way to manage your time.
In fact—technically speaking—multitasking is a myth. Your brain is not wired to do two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time. What is a cognitively demanding task? Basically, it’s anything that involves processing information—particularly language. You can only listen to, speak, read, write, and/or watch one thing at a time. So, when you try to multitask, your brain is just making a ton of tiny switches (email to text, TV to Instagram feed). You’re shutting down and igniting entire parts of your brain in these tiny switches.1
There’s one exception to the multitasking rule: You can do two things at the same time as long as one of them doesn’t involve your language processing center. For example, you can put on makeup and listen to a podcast (something I do most mornings!) or have a conversation with your kids while you all fold laundry together.
5 Reasons Why Multitasking Makes You Feel Out of Balance
If I’m honest with myself, multitasking stresses me out, even though I try to do it. But just because I think I can multitask well doesn’t mean I can. When I try to comfort one of my kids while ordering something online or respond to an email when I’m in a meeting, one (if not both) of those tasks will slip.
If you feel the same way, you’re not crazy. Science confirms what we already know: Multitasking makes you feel unbalanced. Here are five reasons why.
1. Multitasking makes it hard to know what’s most important.
We give our attention to the people and things that matter to us. So, when we multitask, it shows that we’re confused about what matters. We try to divide a little slice of our attention to multiple things at once (which is impossible, by the way) because we feel like all of them matter.
A sense of balance comes from doing the right things at the right time. It’s knowing what matters most in that specific moment. So, if you find yourself multitasking, pause and ask yourself what matters most right now. Then, focus on doing that one thing. After that, move on to the next. You’ll get more done and feel more balanced while you’re at it.
2. Multitasking keeps you from doing your best work.
Distractions hijack your attention and keep you from being creative and productive. They also keep you from being present and focused on people or having fun when you’re not in work mode.
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One study conducted on university students found that media multitasking—like hopping between text and email and Instagram and school websites—negatively impacts brain function and health. Multitasking was damaging to the students’ attention, working memory, GPAs, test performance, reading comprehension and efficiency.2
To do your best work (and enjoy it), focus on doing one thing at a time—one email, one assignment, one conversation.
3. Multitasking causes you to make more mistakes.
Multitasking doesn’t just make you worse at your job—it makes you bad at it. One study measured the effects multitasking has on physicians. Over a one-hour period, 28 physicians who were prescribing medication were interrupted or engaged in a multitasking activity an average of nine times each. The results? Of the 239 medications ordered during that hour, 208 contained errors.3 I wouldn’t want to be one of those doctors (or one of their patients!), and I know you wouldn’t, either.
And let’s talk about something we’re all tempted to do: texting while we drive. In 2019, distracted driving resulted in over 3,000 deaths, a research shows that cell phone users are over 5 times more likely to get into an accident than undistracted drivers.4 Let’s slow down and pay attention to what’s in front of us so we don’t hurt ourselves or the people around us.
4. Multitasking increases stress and anxiety.
Task switching overstimulates your brain and stresses it out. And chronic stress leads to low-grade anxiety. Research shows that multitasking is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety among social media users.5
Anxiety quickly makes you feel out of balance. You feel scattered because you are. You can cut out a lot of unnecessary anxiety by simply doing one thing at a time.
5. Multitasking keeps you from being present.
When you’re distracted by two or three or five things going on at once, you miss what’s happening right in front of you. You miss the look on your kid’s face when they run in the room, excited to show you their artwork from school. You miss that little joke your coworker made at lunch. You don’t catch that typo in your email before you send it off to your CEO.
Being present creates a sense of balance because it helps you focus on the right thing you need to do right then.
How to Be More Productive (Without Multitasking)
There are better ways to spend your attention than multitasking. Here are a few tactical tips I use in my own life and when I’m coaching people:
Focus on doing the right things at the right time.
Balance isn’t doing everything for an equal amount of time—it’s doing the right things at the right time.
The key to getting things done and feeling balanced, both at work and at home, is to focus. Focus creates momentum, and momentum creates progress. Focusing means you’re deciding to put emphasis on that one thing at the expense of other things. Our inability to focus and appreciate what we’re focusing on is robbing our ability to make progress or feel balanced.
Learn to do one thing—the most important thing—at a time. In the end, you’ll get more done and feel more balanced while you’re doing it.
Set boundaries around your phone.
Our phones make it easy (and tempting) to multitask 24/7/365. If you want to be serious about quitting multitasking, you’ve got to come up with a set of boundaries around your phone that work for you and your family.
For example, when I get home from work in the evening, my phone goes in a basket from 5 to 7 p.m. so I can spend time with my kids.
I also suggest turning off as many notifications as possible on your phone. Don’t let a news app or a social media ping interrupt your focus and try to convince you that something else happening in the world is more urgent than what’s right in front of you. Be protective of your attention.
Reduce distractions at work.
Whether you’ve got an office job, you run a business, you work remotely, or you have a unique schedule, do everything you can to get rid of anything that distracts you from work.
One of the easiest ways to get distracted at work is to get sidetracked by an instant message or email. Keep Teams, Slack and email turned off and schedule time to go look at them. Also, don’t try to keep multiple tasks going at the same time. Finish what you start before starting the next thing.
Instead of multitasking, try batching: Group similar tasks together to be more efficient. For example, you can do all your laundry on one or two days a week, schedule time to sit down to budget and pay bills, and do meal prepping at the beginning of the week. You can even batch responding to your text messages!
Need More Time in Your Week?
If you're tired of feeling like you never have enough time, I want you to read my book, Take Back Your Time. It will help you prioritize and say no to what doesn't matter, walk you through each of the things you do want to accomplish, and schedule everything perfectly into place. It's like having me as your personal time management coach.