The days of taking a conference call while collating a pile of reports or walking down a crowded street while texting are over. While it was once a point of pride to be an avid multitasker, the truth is that trying to do too many things at once makes it next to impossible to get anything done. And, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, multitasking overdrive can actually make you 40 percent less productive than focusing on one task at a time.
“I refer to multitasking as multi-failing,” says Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “When you supervise a child while browsing Facebook or try to study for an exam while being on FaceTime, the big loser in these tasks is the higher demand or higher risk task where there is less margin for error — i.e. the test is failed or the child gets hurt.”
So, next time you’re tempted to multitask, even if it’s the most simple thing, like listening to a podcast while making dinner, rethink your actions, says Jane B.G. Tornatore, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Seattle, who believes it all comes down to asking yourself what's most important.
“The real question to ask yourself is, ‘Am I feeling more stressed by listening to a podcast while I make dinner,’” she says. “You may not realize it but that extra noise may be more of a distraction than you think.”
Now for those who swear by multitasking, one positive side is if you think you're performing more than one task at a time (even if you're really not) it can boost your performance, according to a 2018 study published in Psychological Science. Researchers analyzed 32 studies of 8,242 participants and discovered those who believed they were performing multiple tests scored higher than those who believed they were only taking one.
The best way to decide whether certain multitasking behaviors are making you happy (or unhappy) is to do a little experiment, Tornatore says. For example, prepare dinner in silence and then see how you feel.
“Our brains need spaces for quiet,” Tornatore says. “This fuels us to be creative. I’ll admit that I love listening to music while I’m cooking or driving, but I’ve noticed that when I turn off the music, especially during a stressful day, I feel calmer. There’s a feeling of spaciousness.”
There's a term for focusing on one thing at a time: Monotasking, also known as unitasking, means paying attention to and completing just one task at a time. It sounds so basic, and yet, most of us probably would have a difficult time doing it.
Jumping between tasks
The other major form of multitasking, cognitive switching, has more subtle ramifications. When you engage in cognitive switching, instead of doing two tasks at once, you’re switching your attention rapidly back and forth between two mental tasks so it prompts you think about two things simultaneously — an even less productive behavior.
“Studies have shown that this form of mental multitasking both increases the time it takes to do a task and also decreases the quality with which that task is done,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert in Austin, Texas.
The overwhelming truth about multitasking, mental or task-based: You’ll feel utterly unsatisfied in the end.
“If you’re in the middle of doing three things at once, it limits the satisfaction of completing a task because you’re completing others at the same time,” says Holly LaBarbera, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Fremont, California.
LaBarbera’s prescription for overcoming the tendency to multitask: Find the humor in the situation and then take five minutes to breathe.
“When you’re mid-juggle, this is the moment when you want to do some meditation or breathing to put things in perspective,” she says. “Try not to get angry with yourself if you’re trying to do 10 things at once. Then, once you’ve settled down, make a list and prioritize what needs to get done in an orderly fashion. I promise this will do wonders to help you feel better about all that you have to do.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2015.