The Case Against Multitasking: One Point at a Time

Who’s better at multitasking, men or women?

That’s a trick question, actually – the answer is no one

Long-time followers will know that Dr. Pedram Shojai condemns multitasking entirely – as an enterprise, as a goal, or even as a possibility. 

Not only can’t it be done, but even if it could be done, it shouldn’t be. It’s an illusion. But we’re convinced as a society, because technology allows us to do so much more so much faster, that if we bundle our responsibilities, we’ll save time and effort.

And the truth is that you’ll do less of the things you need to do and less effectively if you spend your time training yourself to multitask.

According to leading scientists, it’s a fool’s errand anyway. Even when we think we’re multitasking – called concurrent multitasking – we’re actually rapidly doing one thing after another – sequential multitasking.

Think back to time compression syndrome – that crunched, rushed, manic feeling we get when we’ve committed to too many things in too short a time. Trying to be in two places at once, occupying two mental spaces at once, or trying to complete two tasks at once are all equally futile.

The kind of cognitive functioning that you’re able to access when you’re stressed out with scattered focus is all hind-brain – which is to say, you’re not thinking with your prefrontal cortex. 

Fighting against time, and beating yourself about the head and shoulders for not executing your multitasks perfectly, is the perfect recipe for reinforcing what your monkey brain thinks: you’re dumb, slow, and falling woefully short of societal expectations. 

And that’s the feedback loop we find ourselves caught in when we try to multitask.

Let’s get into what researchers consider the two types of “multitasking” that most of our behavior can be described as…

Concurrent Multitasking

Concurrent multitasking is probably closest to what we imagine we’re doing when we set out to tackle more than one thing at a time.

It’s the process by which we actually execute those independent tasks at the same time. For example, driving and talking on the phone, or cooking and listening to music, or speaking to your boss while also taking notes about your meeting.

Here’s the bit where scientists and researchers can disagree: some believe that there is no such beast as concurrent multitasking, that it’s sequential multitasking being done very rapidly.

Others believe that concurrent multitasking can be achieved through a lot of practice so that certain tasks being completed in the same instance can operate like a sort of muscle memory.

However, the consensus on whether or not it yields the best results is clear: concurrent multitasking ends in all tasks being completed with less accuracy. 

That’s why we have laws about texting and driving – doing both necessitates doing both badly

Part of the reason for this is that, especially when the two or more tasks you’re trying to complete are similar in nature, the areas of the brain that you use too complete those tasks have too much demand…

Reading road signs and reading text, for example, or using your depth perception to look at where your phone is held in your hand and looking at where your car is in relation to the lines on the road. 

Too much demand and less energy to go around means you mentally cannot perform all tasks as well as you’d perform just the one.

Sequential Multitasking

Sequential multitasking is the practice by which your brain quickly groups and organizes tasks into similar boxes and orders them. 

For example, cooking dinner may seem like one task, but it’s actually many tasks that your brain prioritizes and executes. Pull out zucchini, go to grab the knife and on the way back, pull the butter from the fridge to soften, chop zucchini and toss into a bowl, run the water into the kettle and turn it on…

Or while you’re working – flipping between tabs, firing off an email, writing a document, reading an article for research, and using the stationary bike underneath your desk to get in your daily exercise.

Sequential multitasking differs from concurrent in that you’re aware that you’re switching between tasks. Concurrent multitasking may still be switching between tasks, but your brain has deluded itself into thinking you’re actually doing several things in the same breath.

That’s why some people consider themselves excellent multitaskers – they can get dinner on the table, switch the laundry over while something is being timed in the oven, pay attention to the documentary that’s on TV in the background, and help their children with their homework seemingly all at once.

Now that we understand it isn’t happening all at once

We can start to unpack the massive cognitive pressure on the frontal region of the brain.

That’s why it feels exhausting, fruitless, and affirms the low opinions of ourselves we all seem to have. We are performing at a lower level of excellence than we would be if we’d just committed to one task at a time.

This time compression syndrome, the same thing that leads us to believe multitasking is the only way out, is almost inevitable in a modern householder.

There really are too many things to do – and that’s why the answer isn’t multitasking.

It’s organizing.

Check out Dr. Shojai’s Life Garden course if you’re interested in how he uses time-chunks to design his life, rather than relying on crushing our to-do lists by extracting ourselves from the present moment to live in a stultifying spiral of task-hopping and future-tripping.

And don’t forget – Focus comes out on November 10th. You can pre-order it here, if you’d like!

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.