Multitasking: You’re Not as Efficient as You Think (and Why)

If there’s one thing we can all agree on about life, it’s that it’s busy. You have dinner to make, projects to finish for work, the gym, and that final episode of Grey’s Anatomy to watch all before you hit the sack. It’s natural to want to take some shortcuts here and there by doing multiple things at once. Why not make dinner and finish that project? Why not answer emails with Grey’s blaring in the background?

You might think you’re a multitasking wizard capable of completing five responsibilities at once. We hate to burst your bubble, but that’s not how it works for most of us. In fact, you’re a lot less efficient than you think you are.

Your brain when you multitask

Brain lobes in different colors on a blue background

Think you’re a good multitasker? You’re probably wrong. | iStock.com/alex-mit

You probably can think of a time or two when you thought you were efficiently multitasking. But actually, NPR notes you most likely weren’t doing two things at once — you were switching back and forth between tasks. Neuroscientist Earl Miller tells the publication we’re really good at switching tasks at an incredibly fast pace. So fast, in fact, “you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.”

So, why can’t your brain just handle doing a few things at once? It’s because the two tasks are likely competing to use the same area of the brain. If you’ve ever tried to write an email and talk on the phone at the same time, you know how impossible it is. That’s because the same part of the brain is used for both tasks.

Only about 2% of the population can truly multitask

stressed woman holding her head like she has a headache

Supertaskers are among us — but you’re probably not one of them. | iStock.com/SIphotography

Most of us struggle to multitask whether we want to admit it or not. But there are a few people known as “supertaskers” that are actually highly efficient multitaskers. Don’t get too excited and think you’re among them, though — they make up only about 2% of the population according to research performed by David Strayer, the professor of psychology at the University of Utah, and Jason Watson, a neuroscientist.

The study took place in 2010 and involved 200 participants. They were asked to drive a car while also answering various word problems, math equations, and memory exercises, The New Yorker reports. About 97% of the participants received a failing grade. There were a few people, however, who could do it all — but that was only 3% of the sample. This was a small study, but several other studies have occurred after this one with similar findings.

Women are generally better at it

Three young women drinking tea at a spa resort

Women may have the upper hand with this one. | iStock.com/petrenkod

Sorry, men — women may be the frontrunners in multitasking (even if everyone’s generally bad at it). A study in the journal BMC Psychology tested 120 men and 120 women on computer-based tasks. They found both groups performed slowly when asked to complete two tasks at once, but the male participants experienced a much more significant slow down.

The study also tested another group, this time 47 men and 47 women. This group was asked to answer math problems on paper, answer questions on a phone call, search for restaurants on a map, and make a strategy for finding a lost key — all in under eight minutes. Everyone struggled with this one, but when it came to finding the key, the women outperformed the men by a long shot.

So, why are women potentially better at multitasking? BBC News posits it could come from our hunter-gatherer origins — women were busy raising the children, doing things around the home, and making meals while the men were performing more linear tasks, like hunting. It’s important to note the study here is small as well, but still, the results are interesting.

Your ability to multitask gets worse with age

a young woman's hand holding an older person's hand

You’re not as good at multitasking as you were when you were younger. | iStock.com/vladans

You probably have a few gripes about getting older already, so feel free to add this one to the list. It turns out your ability to switch from task to task gets worse with age. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested the multitasking abilities of a group of people around their early 20s and another group around their late 60s. All participants were asked to look at photos of an outdoor landscape — but this task was soon interrupted with a picture of a face. After answering a few questions about the face, participants were asked details about the original landscapes they first looked at.

The older folks had more trouble refocusing on the original landscape after the interruption was introduced. Here’s why: When you multitask, you slow down your short-term memory, making it harder to recall information you just learned. And this has a greater impact on the elderly. This was a small sample size, though — each group was around 20 people — so more tests are likely needed to confirm these findings.

Some jobs requiring multitasking pay a ton of money

a doctor talking to a young female patient

Preventative-medicine physicians get paid a lot, and they have to juggle many tasks. | iStock.com/GeorgeRudy

Maybe you’re not a supertasker, but you do know you’re pretty good at shifting between tasks and juggling a number of responsibilities. You might actually thrive in an environment where multitasking is necessary. Well, we have good news for you — Business Insider outlined some of the highest paying jobs for those who have this skill.

Air traffic controllers require a great ability to focus on multiple duties at once, and they certainly get paid for it. You can expect to make $118,780 on average annually. If math and science are more your thing, engineering, particularly petroleum engineering, requires you to oversee drill sites and come up with the best ways to extract gas. This job pays about $147,520 annually. If you have aspirations to be a doctor, then a preventative-medicine physician juggles a ton of tasks and makes nearly $200,000 a year.

It can be bad for your health

a businessman with his head on his laptop

Your multitasking habits can lead to depression. | iStock.com/SIphotography

Not only are you bad at doing a lot of things at once, but even your attempt is hurting your health. Tim Elmore for Psychology Today notes multitasking has really ruined our clarity. Think about it — when you’re having a conversation, texting someone, and reading an email, do you fully remember anything you said, wrote, or read?

Doing too many things at once puts you in an unfocused, distracted fog. And because you always feel like you have something to finish, you end up stressing yourself out, increasing your anxiety levels, and possibly even developing depression. You probably even feel physically tired and overwhelmed after taking on too many duties in a short timeframe. And who’s that helping? No one.

How to become better at multitasking

a man working at his messy desk while on the phone

Do yourself a favor and prioritize your duties so your desk doesn’t look like this guy’s. | iStock.com

You can’t train your brain to do multiple unrelated tasks at once. You can, however, teach yourself how to be more efficient with a few simple tricks. Cognitive psychologist Art Markman tells Entrepreneur you should take note of all the tasks you have to get done that are related. Bundle those together so you don’t have to keep shifting your focus. Also, make a to-do list — and actually use it. Have it next to you at all times and prioritize what you have to accomplish by putting those items at the top.

And, if you’re given new information — say, a document to read before a meeting — and you’re already swamped with work, make sure to skim it a few times that day. Trying to digest all the info in one sitting when you have a million other tasks on your mind isn’t going to work. Help your memory out by skimming over it multiple times when you have a minute.

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