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The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

The myths and misconceptions of multitasking: what happens in your brain, how to break the habit, and an interesting tip on when (if used intentionally) it might actually benefit you...
October 11, 2022 by Henny Rau

“Crazy busy is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is we stay so busy, and so in front of our life, that the truth of what we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us.”
- Brené Brown

In a world that moves so fast, we are faced daily with the challenge of finding harmony and balance. At some point, we all experience a season of overloaded schedules, never-ending commitments, and an overwhelming amount of responsibilities. Multitasking often seems like the only way to accomplish everything on your plate when there are simply too few hours in the day to fit it all in.

Some of these practices, such as listening to a podcast while walking, might be beneficial for your mental health, while others, such as texting while driving, undoubtedly put you (and those around you) in danger. Even though many of us rely on multitasking to maintain our busy schedules, it’s not always the best solution…

What happens in your brain when you multitask?

According to Psychology Today, research has consistently proven that “multitasking is not achievable with human cognitive functioning.” To put it simply: the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Anytime that you need to pay attention, the prefrontal cortex of your brain is engaged. When you focus on a single task, both sides of the prefrontal cortex are working together, for optimal brain functioning. However, when you add in another task simultaneously, the left and right sides of your brain are divided and begin working separately (Science, 2010).

Much of the way our brains function is due to human evolution. Although we no longer live out in open plains with predators, our brains still prioritize approaching threats, so when you multitask, it goes against evolutionary neural processing and causes cognitive dissonance. This leads to a stress response in your brain, which then adds an array of emotions and overwhelm into the mix. On top of that, multitasking causes your brain to engage at a lower functioning level, leads to the release of stress-induced neurochemicals, and inhibits your memory processing and recall (Psychology Today, 2022).

At the end of the day, when you’re multitasking, you’re actually just rapidly switching between one action and another, or “task-switching” (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Our brains weren’t designed to efficiently do two things at once. We’re humans, not robots.

The pros and cons of multitasking

We often think of multitasking only in regards to work, but most people also multitask in other areas of daily life, including communication in relationships and maintenance of health. The notion that multitasking enhances productivity is a myth. There is overwhelming evidence from research that multitasking actually lowers productivity by increasing mistakes, decreasing the quality of the task, causing distractions which decrease focus, and slowing you down as you switch back and forth between tasks (Psychology Today, 2022).

However, while multitasking decreases productivity, there is research showing that it has the potential to increase creativity. According to research conducted by UNC Chapel Hill, people who multitasked before a creative project showed more creative thinking and ideas. How does this work? Multitasking requires a higher level of brain activation to meet the demand for additional mental resources to support the various tasks. Once additional brain resources are activated, cognitive flexibility allows your brain to use that extra energy in various ways - including for enhanced creativity (University of North Carolina, 2020). So, next time you have a fun creative project, try simple multitasking before starting (eg: workout while watching TV or listen to an audiobook while cleaning), and see what happens!

What to do about it?

The simplest way to cut the habit of multitasking is not by finding another way to get your mile long to-do list completed, but rather, to focus on simplifying your life. Take some time to get clear on your priorities so that moving forward, you can say no to things that fall lower on your priority list. In addition, be realistic with your time management and get clear on what your capacity is so that you know when you have enough on your plate and need to start declining requests or commitments. 

Here are a few other ways to help break the habit of multitasking:

  • Create a schedule. Set aside time to do similar tasks, such as responding to emails and checking your texts (Very Well Mind, 2021).
  • Limit distractions - an easy way to do this is to keep your phone on “do not disturb” or keep your door closed while working.
  • Set boundaries and expectations. Let your co-workers and friends know that you don’t check your phone or email outside of specified times, so that they know not to expect an immediate response (Psychology Today, 2022).
  • “20-minute rule” - If you do multitask, dedicate 20 minutes to a single task before switching to another, rather than switching minute to minute (Time, 2013).

Helen Rau

Henny Rau

Henny is a coastal California-based writer. When not writing or sipping on Clevr, you can find her exploring trails in the backcountry, paddling into waves or sharing a meal in the garden with friends.