Checking Facebook during a meeting? Switching between reading your email and working on that big report? Catching up on work-related reading while eating lunch? You might think you’re using your time efficiently by tackling multiple tasks at once, but chances are, you’re not. Multitasking just doesn’t work, according to researchers who study the subject.
“[P]eople going back and forth between two conscious mental activities … lose some time and efficiency of brain function that robs them of effective accomplishment of one activity, or both,” said Anne Grinols, an assistant dean at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business who has studied multitasking.
Take the nearly ubiquitous distraction of smartphones. Who hasn’t succumbed to the urge to peek at their phone during a particularly dull conference call or immediately responded to a text from a friend, even when they should be working? But even these minor shifts in attention affect our ability to work efficiently.
College students who use smartphones during class or while studying don’t do as good of a job at retaining or comprehending information, according to a paper by Grinols published in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly.
“Students read an excerpt of material during class time while having complete access to their cell phones,” Grinols explained. “Most received multiple texts, which they were allowed to read and respond to. The more texts, the less well the students did on the comprehension test all of them took at the end of the period. Some of them were surprised at how poorly they did.”
Worse, practice doesn’t seem to make perfect when it comes to multitasking. Chronic or heavy multitaskers actually did worse on a test designed to assess their ability to switch between tasks than those who multitasked less frequently, a 2009 study published in the journal PNAS found.
“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” Clifford Nass, who conducted the study, told NPR. “They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
Other researchers have found people who reported frequent multitasking with multiple devices had less gray matter in their brains. If your multitasking extends to eating while working, it might contribute to weight gain.
Despite a body of evidence suggesting we all need to put down our phones and focus on the task at hand, people can’t seem to stop multitasking. (It certainly doesn’t help when employers specifically seek out people who claim to be able to multitask.) Multitasking is so pervasive that we may not even realize we’re doing it, like when you find yourself thinking about a big work project during your commute, which can take your attention from the more important task at hand – driving.
Multitasking may be an insidious problem, but there are ways to fight it. Putting your phone or other devices away when working on a big assignment may help. (Try hiding it in another room or turning it off entirely if the urge to fiddle is too great.) So can clustering certain tasks together so they don’t distract you later. For example, schedule designated email check-ins throughout the day and ignore your inbox at other times. If concentrating on a single task is hard, embracing meditation or mindfulness techniques can help improve your focus.
Most of all, you need to accept your own limitations, and stop giving in to the temptation to try to juggle multiple tasks at once.
“We are just not good at multitasking,” Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist who has studied multitasking, told National Geographic. “Multitasking is part of life; we have to do it. But to be really efficient, do one thing at a time. It’s much better to focus half an hour on one task, then do half an hour on another task, than to switch back and forth.”