The Myth of Multitasking

There’s a rather important truth that all of us need to know about ourselves, and it contradicts something that we have been taught explicitly and implicitly for many years now. American business culture and the world of digital media promise us that they can create gadgets and strategies that allow us to multitask, and thus get more done at work and more out of life. This idea is immensely appealing, after all, how often do we have the feeling that there is never enough time for all of our obligations and everything that matters the most to us? Multitasking seems to be an answer for resolving the dynamic tension between our need to be productive, our need for recreation, and our need to find time for the various relationships in our lives.  

There’s just one problem. Science has clearly demonstrated that the human brain is not designed to multitask. The best our brain can do is attempt to switch rapidly between multiple tasks, and as we do so, it creates an illusion of sorts that we are actually multi-tasking. But, as our brain switches between those various tasks, it loses efficiency, accuracy, and awareness. The process that would be necessary for successful multitasking is simply not compatible with our brain structure. We can’t train ourselves to multitask. It simply doesn’t work. Sure, we may feel like we are improving in our ability to multitask as we engage in it more, but the science shows that the better we think we are at multitasking, the worse we actually are at it. Constantly multitasking doesn’t make us better at it; rather, it makes us more self-deceived and more unaware of just how distracted and ineffective we have become. It seems that the first piece of awareness we lose when we attempt to multitask is self-awareness.  

An honest and self-aware definition of multitasking would be, ͞The art of doing multiple things poorly.͟ We must resist the urge to think that being with our families while having our phones out and our social media or mobile games on, is the same as being physically, mentally, and emotionally present and engaged. We must recognize the truth that in our efforts to stay digitally connected with everyone, at all times, we fall into the trap of being genuinely unavailable to anyone, ever. There is a saying commonly attributed to Confucius: ͞The person who chases two rabbits catches none.͟ The problem with attempting to multitask is – not only do we not catch either rabbit, we end up thinking we have caught both, so we cease any meaningful efforts to catch either one.  

On the other hand, there is research that shows that simply focusing on one thing at a time makes us more efficient, more effective, and much happier. There is wisdom in the maxim, ͞do less, accomplish more.͟ Make yourself fully available, one task at a time, and get more out of life.  

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Written by Ryan Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, MedFT

Ryan Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, MedFT currently works as the Executive Director of the Telos Discovery Space Center, pioneering the art of simulated experiences as a therapeutic modality. He also serves as the process addiction specialist for all Telos programs. Additionally, he is the author of the book "Screen Savvy: Creating Balance in a Digital World.