02 August 2011

On a Quest to Simplify - Stop Multitasking

I have been a serial multitasker for a long time and I must admit that I was proud of it. I thought that was the right way. Riding the multitasking wave used to make me feel like the do-all, be-all mighty master of every problem. The realization that women can multitask better than men gave me one more reason to proudly keep on gaining speed.

There came the time though for questioning the effects of my ability. In the past months I found myself in a whirlwind of activities that have been slowly adding to each other, each more important than the rest - activities that I couldn't refrain from and with time became more complex and required even more time. 

Photo: kanelstrand

Until recently I thought I was juggling perfectly well and I patted myself on the back for the great performance. Some of the multitasking I've caught myself into: 
  • writing a blog post and checking mail/twitter/facebook/watching TV
  • browsing/watching TV while talking on the phone 
  • my favorite - listening to an audio book while knitting/crocheting/cooking
Should I go on? I believe this is common practice for most of us, modern people and I am sure you can add your fair portion of "harmless" multitasking to the list. 

After I felt definitely burnt-out and caught myself keeping away from ventures I used to enjoy I set out to find the reason. After all, losing passion is not to be overlooked. I noticed how easily it was to fall into the multitasking trap. Wishing to spare time and thinking I was effective, I was actually losing time and overloading my brain!

Photo: kanelstrand

In "The Multitasking Generation" it is clearly stated that when you try to complete several tasks at a time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer - often double the time or more - to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” The main reason for this is that the brain has no other option than to restart and refocus. A study by Meyer and David Kieras found that between the different restarts, the brain even makes no progress. So, when we multitask, we not only perform the tasks badly, but we also lose time.

As I read in Wikipedia, "since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have been conducting experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. It has become clear that multitasking is not as profitable as concentrated times. In general, these studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time."

Photo: foreverdigital

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell even describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Others have researched multitasking in specific domains, such as learning. Mayer and Moreno have studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning extensively and have concluded that it is difficult, and highly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking. Junco and Cotten examined how multitasking affects academic success and found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work

Photo: Paul Oka

The scary part of the story is that modern life provokes and requires constant multitasking, as simple as listening to music while exercising. And of course, our social interaction is negatively affected. Have you noticed how young people manage to text and listen to music while having a conversation? They may be really good at switching their attention rapidly between 3 actions, but in fact, they are physically incapable of focusing on both in the same moment. 

So, I decided to experiment with myself. I consciously shut off multitasking. When I caught my eyes wandering aimlessly to the mail tab of my Firefox browser, I simply didn't succumb and didn't click through. Instead, I concentrated on what I was doing. I tried to stop all temptations that were otherwise too easy to fall into and that normally reduced my effectiveness and to tell you the truth, the feeling was liberating!

I felt I came back to an old self I had forgotten, leading a slow life of delight and appreciation of the present. Now, when you come to think of it, there is hardly a better way to enjoy the moment than to fully dip yourself into its waters - to only read when you read and to only eat when you eat; to sit quietly under a starry sky, without the glow of a display and without any interruption that you yourself have been welcoming so far. And you know what, I am planning to keep it simple, stress-free and old-fashioned. I realized my brain is not yet a computer (and thank God for that!) and there is no need to treat it like one.

You might want to read the other posts in the series On a Quest to Simplify:

Do you multitask and how does it affect your life? Does it have positive or negative effects on your life?


  1. What a great post - lots to think about! I definitely multi-task a lot, maybe too much, but sometimes it's a good thing - like folding laundry on the phone, or watching tv while doing dishes. (I clearly hate chores!) Lately I've been trying to focus on just one thing at a time, and it does help with stress levels.

  2. I do multitask in some way - reading while I eat, listening to music while I do just about anything (LOL I love my music) - but I don't feel that I do it to an unhealthy degree.

    And I definitely know what you mean. Nowadays, even when kids are hanging out together they're texting the friends who AREN'T there and ignoring the ones who ARE. It makes me grateful that I don't have a cell phone, or a Facebook/Twitter account, and that when my friends and I get together we can just hang out, instead of keep our attention glued to the little gadget in our hand. The texting can hardly even be called multitasking, anyway, since you can tell that when someone's texting they're not hearing what you say.

  3. tweal, I believe you are right. Sometime we don't need to be 100% there for the laundry :))

    Taylor, you are such an inspiration, you know that? I love the way your family embrace real living, which is an exception to the rule nowadays. Respect for not having a cell phone, facebook or twitter!

  4. I completely agree. I realized some time ago that I don't multitask well. After reading your post, I may even have to reconsider listening to the radio while sewing or crocheting. Hmmm...

  5. I think part of effective multi-tasking is knowing your limits. I'm a great multi-tasker, but I never do more than 2 things at once, and they can't be 2 things that involve words.

    For example, I love to read while I eat. But I can't read and watch TV, because they're both word-based activities and my brain will just tune one out.

    And you're right about constantly texting/emailing/whatever on a cell phone. It's so irritating.

  6. I couldn't agree more -having 4 kids I don't know if I could even get thru the day without the "multitask". There just aren't enough hours in the day. I definately feel I am not as focused as I used to be but I think running 5 other lives it's to be expected .My brain however loves the moments when I can be truly quiet and concentrate on one thing I've never appreciated it more...right now? I am eating breakfast/checking email/ going over summer work with one of the boys next to me EEEK!

  7. Thank you, Sonya, that's so sweet of you to say. <3 Hugs!

  8. I have to agree that I don't know if it's possible NOT to multitask with kids around. Don't kill me for sounding sexist but my friends and I think it's partly a man/woman thing. When I am taking care of the kids, I'm doing laundry, making dinner and taking care of the kids. When my husband does it, he's taking care of the kids. He will sit on the floor and play hot wheels or catch or whatever and really be with the child, which I think is actually more valuable than having the laundry done. So I can't say that one is better than the other as far as multitasking goes. I read recently on an Etsy forum thread that someone did an experiment where they packed one order from beginning to end vs. packing several at a time, and the beginning to end way was faster contrary to what we would think. Very interesting post, thanks! Lots to think about here.

  9. I'm also a multitasker and often it is not good because I am not really listening to what the other person is saying.
    I do agree, we aren't as good as we think by doing all these task simultaneously!

  10. Yeah I'm one of those people that totally pretends that I'm multitasking when I'm completely not. I think the best example I've seen is my little bro, who would have Warcraft, Youtube videos playing, talking on his headset, playing spider solitaire, and watching Steven Colbert all at the same time. There's just no way he was doing all that at once.

  11. YES! Of course I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that I totally agree with you! I used to be so proud of myself, and all I could accomplish in a day, I was a master multi-tasker! What I failed to realize however, was that I was missing out on my own life. Waking up to that realization has been the most liberating thing. Doing one job, completely and thoroughly involves such peace and renders each thing sacred. I love this post, great work Sonya! I'm glad you found you rythmn again. :)

  12. When I multitask (which is all of the time), I realize that I don't get very much done. I can relate to you in getting burnt out by it. I think it's a total cultural mindset. Multitasking seems like a brilliant idea until we realize that it is completely inefficient. Anyway, I'm trying to get better at slowing down and concentrating :) Thanks for posting this! Those studies are so interesting.

  13. My name is Sonja and I am a recovering multi-tasker.
    I am notorious for burning the bacon while making coffee and working on my etsy shop or blog! On top of that I keep two small kids entertained and happy. I have had to FORCE myself to brew a cup of coffee, enjoy it, cook excellent bacon to eat and THEN get on the computer.
    Just a few weeks ago my husband confronted me about all my 1/2 completed tasks as well. I would wash laundry, but only fold half. I would wash dishes, but not put them away...etc. I was so busy multi-tasking with two small kids at home that nothing was getting done. It is much better to focus on QUALITY not QUANTITY. :-D

  14. Very interesting! I also read while eating as a few people have said.

  15. Fantastic post, and great timing for me. I multi-task lots with my work and have noticed that I try to multi-task far too much in my downtime too. Sonja is right - quality is more important than quantity!

  16. VERY timely, as I've been trying to scale back on the multi-tasking too. I feel disconnected and overwhelmed when I multi-task too much for too long. Summer has been a good time to scale back, done one thing at a time, savor the moment, etc. I'm all for the quality NOT quantity too. :o)

  17. I am a MAJOR multi-tasker, and even though I know it's completely counterproductive, I still tend to convince myself of the opposite when I'm overwhelmed. I really think that society's encouragement (especially here in the states) to get as much done as possible as quickly has possible has taught us to believe that multi-tasking is more effective, when in truth, it's not. This post was a great reminder. Thanks! :)


  18. I am SO busted!
    I multitask every chance I get.
    Even though I have thoroughly admitted that
    my abilities in an era gone by were indeed
    admirable, alas! I can no longer say that I can
    run 5 different machines in an office or a kitchen simultaneously and get away with it!

    This is a great post and well worth sharing with the world.

    I need to do what you do and just ignore, or deny my impulses to do more than one thing at a time!

  19. I always believed I was not a very good multitasker, now I don't feel so bad for having the need to be able to focus on one thing without doing anything else.

    Now there is natural multitasking that come with being a mom, like cooking and helping a kiddo. But I just realized that texting and driving is not natural at all.

  20. Thank you for this article! I'm a recovering multi-tasker who's learned I actually get more done and do it better when I focus on one thing at a time. And I find focusing on one thing at a time adds quite a bit of sanity to my day that multi-tasking took away.
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  21. Great article Sonya! It made me question myself while I was reading... I do multi-task all the time but; I also recognize this as a qualificaton of me (I actually even write it on my CV as - ability to multi-task :)) I feel like it is a must thing when we don't have enough time between work, relationships, house, pets, husband, hobbies, .. I focus sometimes on only single project or task but; only when I cannot multi-task.


  22. "my favorite - listening to an audio book while knitting/crocheting/cooking" omg I'm so guilty of this one! unfortunately this is not the only multitasking I do. :/

  23. Haha, you know what, Maša, I have decided to get this off the list of multitasking! I read recently that it is ok as long as you don't do two similar activities at the same time, f.ex. two that include words like reading and listening; So, we could say that knitting and listening to audio books/music complement each other :)

    i strongly recommend you to try and not multitask step by step. You will feel so relieved!

  24. thanks for recommendations! yeah, I think it's OK if you listen to audio book while doing something so automatically you don't have to think about it (like ironing). I've learned that I can't even listen to books when I'm picking the clothes to wear. it does require a little thinking, like what goes together and will be appropriate for a certain weather. :) I must admit that I always thought that others are better at multitasking/switching between tasks. I can't understand my boyfriend who is studies while listening to vocal music (even instrumental is distracting me!) or nurse who is writing recipes while talking on the phone - now wonder she wrote wrong quantity the last time (100mg instead of 25mg of something, huge difference :P).