When you hear the term, “multitasking,” what immediately comes to mind? You might have a strong negative connotation, a strong positive association, or something between the two. Your own relationship with multitasking can take several forms. You may switch constantly between similar tasks. You may embrace media multitasking – like scrolling social media while watching Netflix – but try to avoid switching tasks when one requires deep focus. However you define your relationship with multitasking, there’s more to this function of your brain than you may realize.
This article explores your brain on multitasking and offers ways to maximize gains in productivity while spending less time on task switching. If you’re trying to better understand your tendency toward or avoidance of multitasking while making the most of your brain function, read on.
What is multitasking?
The simplest definition of multitasking is working on two or more tasks at the same time – or rapidly switching between tasks. It can look like folding laundry while tuning into a podcast or moving between two different coding projects in the same work session.
The prevailing sentiment is that overall, multitasking causes harm to productivity. A meta-analysis of other studies supports this theory, but with a caveat: while multitasking can have a negative cognitive impact, it can have a positive impact on the “attitudinal outcome” – or how you feel about the work you complete. In other words, multitasking may make you feel like a productivity superstar – even if your gains were hampered by trying to focus on multiple tasks at once. A friend described her version of this with boredom spurring a desire to move between smaller tasks and gain a sense of accomplishment while cutting through the apathy.
The decrease in efficiency and increase in mistakes stemming from multitasking is called a “task switch cost” or “switch cost.” A pair of researchers break down this overall cost further into two categories: one tied to the amount of time used to make a mental adjustment and a second connected with the brainpower used to go from one frame of mind fit for a task to a new one befitting the next task. For example, if you’re writing an update for a team Slack channel and move over to answering a direct message about a different project, you have to adjust your focus from writing a cohesive update to trying to remember details about a different project in order to provide the right answer to your co-worker.
What does all this mean for your productivity in the midst of constant project milestones, deadlines, and check-ins? You have to make multitasking work for you.
Despite the known impacts on cognitive function, multitasking still happens. To make the most of it, know what you’re up against and work with it – rather than against it.
Your brain on multitasking
The first step to getting the most out of multitasking is understanding what you’re up against.
Two neuroscientists co-authored an article on the brain and how it works when it comes to completing tasks. The simplest explanation for why you may find yourself struggling when you multitask is that your brain is wired to monotask. It evolved to focus on one task at a time rather than process multiple sources of stimuli at once.
The slightly longer explanation is that your brain has a set of three key systems responsible for completing tasks. The first, the frontoparietal control network, defines the goal around a task like sharing the critical missteps that curtailed a project with a co-worker. This network sets the stage for defining what is relevant to this communication and what is not. The next network, the dorsal attention network, performs the selection of this relevant info. The ventral attention network ties the work of these first two into a nice bow by automatically filtering out distractions so you can stay focused on the defined goal.
Moving between the defined goal – drafting communication – and a different goal, like thinking of a response to a co-worker’s DM, taxes these systems. The ventral attention network might not do as well at keeping distractions at bay. The dorsal attention network might bring in information irrelevant to the initial task.
The mental work you just did to read and comprehend those paragraphs? That’s what suffers when you switch between tasks repeatedly.
Making multitasking work for you
Looming deadlines and a sense of urgency from managers can make it easy to fall into juggling multiple tasks. Based on how the brain works and the reality of demands in the workplace, here are six steps to help you curtail the negative impacts of multitasking.
1. Recognize your multitasking habits
The first step to making multitasking work for you is to recognize the situations that spur task switching – like direct messages asking for something unrelated to the work in front of you. Take notes over a few days or a week of the situations where you find yourself multitasking. Then, put each competing task into one of two buckets: automatic or manual.
Automatic tasks are those that can be done quickly and thus repetitively like washing dishes or folding laundry. At work, you may have some automatic tasks like organizing your inbox or copying and pasting notes to a shared doc from your note-taking app.
Manual tasks, or complex tasks, are those that require more of your time – and mental power. These include writing emails, having a conversation, actively participating in a meeting, and more.
2. Feed your dopamine hits by making automatic and manual task pairings.
Batching similar tasks can help you feel a sense of accomplishment – or break up boredom – without feeling the worst effects of task switching. This can look like making your to-do list as you go through your inbox or organizing your desk during an all-staff meeting. Task pairings can even be used to help boost motivation. For example, listening to music as you complete a specific task like cleaning out your inbox or catching up on team communications can help clearly mark the time spent on those tasks.
3. Use the 20-minute rule for manual tasks.
To help your brain focus on the task at hand, put a time boundary around manual tasks. This can help you get into a deeper focus. You may even find after 20 minutes your attention is fully centered on the task and you can work for longer.
4. Be gentle if you slip into old habits.
Leaving phone notifications on during a meeting. Jumping to solve an issue presented in an email while in the midst of prioritizing tasks for the day. Moving between a complicated project task and answering messages from team members. Old habits die hard – especially if extra stress or anxiety piles on top of a growing to-do list. Choose to course correct after your next work break or even the next day, if you need.
5. Recognize your talents.
If there’s one set of automatic and manual tasks that might slow down someone else but feel easy to complete for you, embrace it. Despite what is known about multitasking and its effects, there are plenty of roles that require a level of dispersed thought. Air traffic controllers have to think of not only a plane approaching the airport but the plane that just landed and those miles out from the runway preparing for landing.
6. Realize other gains from protecting your focus.
Aside from productivity, there are some mental health benefits to staying focused. You’ll likely realize some reduction in stress when you prioritize a single task. With less stress and more productivity, you’re also likely to reach your goals sooner.
Cutting back on multitasking can also help you overcome another less than stellar habit: over responsiveness. When you make a point to answer direct messages quickly or respond to emails as soon as they come in, it can feel helpful and productive. It can also set a precedent that co-workers or managers can rely on you for knowledge instead of finding the same knowledge housed in project management apps, shared docs, and more. Committing to more guarded focus time and less task switching can help set the kind of boundaries that support your productivity. An app like Clockwise can help set those boundaries. It not only organizes your day into blocks of focus time, but integrates with Slack to automatically update your status when you’re in focus mode and not readily available for synchronous communication.
A productivity prediction
With the many research studies, meta-analyses, and prescriptive podcasts on the negative effects of multitasking, you may wonder why this article allows any room for task switching. To me, the reality is many people may never stop multitasking. For many, work is busier than ever. The Great Resignation, overall gaps in labor availability, and personal desires to accomplish more than before all play a role in extended to-do lists. Rather than try to defeat multitasking entirely, get to know it on a deeper level so you can make it work for you. Find your multitasking strengths to exploit them while simultaneously recognizing where you need the kind of deep focus that produces consistent results. As you go about your daily life, remember that knowledge is power and you should use it to its fullest extent.