The Myth of Multitasking

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Multitasking is a catch-all word that signifies success, adaptability and, above all, is a common descriptor on hopeful job applicants’ resumes. Friends, do you want the truth?

Our brains don’t like to multitask. In fact, they hate it and reject it. They’re simply not wired to behave in such a manner. Next time that interviewer asks you about your multitasking skills, you can look them in the eye and say, “It’s not healthy for a mind to multitask and, furthermore, it can’t do it anyway.” Humph. Tell them to suck it. 

Research shows that humans can only think about four things at once. And if you think you are multitasking oh so successfully, chances are you’re just not. You just spilled your coffee while you looked at that guy crossing the hall, checked an email, mistyping a word and meanwhile, while trying to hold a conversation on the phone, you didn’t hear the last two sentences. You look busy and productive, sure. How is this really going?

It’s impossible to multitask. Your brain will accommodate multiple requests by doing what’s called “spotlights.”  At most, the brain may dual-task, and divides and conquers to complete those two tasks. But two complex tasks are the limit. If you add a third task, the prefrontal cortex will simply discard one of the tasks. It’s no dummy. The results show that the brain has only two hemispheres available for task management and can only take two tasks at a time. Simply put, it needs both hemispheres to successfully complete a task.

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Unless you have superpowers and several arms…well, humans are just not equipped to multitask.

As further evidence, I kid you not, while writing this post I attempted to cook dinner and burned it. Oh, what a Bumble! Personally, I know that I am drained when I take on too many tasks and it usually takes me longer to complete any one task. There’s research on that, too.

Multitasking is regarded as a badge of honor by today’s youth and likely encouraged as the new “norm” by their peers. A study out of Stanford identified two separate groups, “heavy media multitaskers” (HMMs) and “light media multitaskers” (LMMs). The fact that we have two separate groups with acronyms is disturbing all on its own. Both groups were asked to decipher relevant information from the environment and irrelevant information based on memory, all the while switching their tasks. You guessed it, the heavy group did worse. What’s more, those who multitask actually think they’re great at it!

While attempting to do a task, I’m convinced the mind can think about a whole host of things completely unrelated to the task at hand. My yoga teacher suggests that you can think about 13 things at once and I believe her, but often it feels like much more than that. Do you have moments when you feel your brain might explode with too many thoughts flying around?

Here’s a test. Next time you feel overtaxed with too many thoughts, write them down in a list. (Note: this is not meant to be a real “to do.”  list. This simply a way to get your thoughts down on paper. I say list form so you can see them itemized. In other words, these thoughts may not be something you have to do at all. They could be just mere thoughts clogging your brain.)

Actually writing them down will slow your thinking, but what’s more, you’ll see you may not really be thinking of as many things as you feel. It’s more likely that anxiety is playing a role. It likes to get in the way. Anxiety is very bossy and is also responsible for shallow breathing and irrational thinking.

So, okay the simple solution must be to think and do one thing at a time, right? It turns out, people may have more trouble with that one. I have some ideas about this. Tune in next week, when I talk about my new passion. Breathing on purpose.

In the meantime, if things seem a little harried, stop and check in. Give yourself grace. You’re just human, after all.

photo credit: Multitasking in the Park via photopin (license)
photo credit: High-Octane Villain via photopin(license)

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55 thoughts on “The Myth of Multitasking

  1. What a great article, Amy! I think multitasking is the perfect way to always ‘swim on the surface and never go deeper’. Also could very well be a synonym for incomplete, half-done or -as in your case- burnt dinner! Multitasking isn’t even good for cleaning the house! Try it and you’ll end up running about faster and faster like an electron only to realize a little later that you’ve left most tasks half-done with an added bonus: a headache! I can’t wait for your next post!
    ps yep, breathing is elementary! 😉

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    1. Thank you, Marina. Glad you liked it! I love your explanations. They make perfect sense to me. Multitasking as a synonym for half-done and incomplete, and most importantly, a way to avoid the deep! Yes, I think you’re absolutely spot on. Besides, burnt dinner is very unsatisfying. I’ve tried to multitask chores and usually I feel like it takes me twice as long and I’m doing it forever. Breathing has made such a huge difference to me. I’m getting better at it! Thanks for your lovely comments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant! There was a time I may have argued with you about this but that time no longer exists. It was a standard line for me, “Listen, I can do 27 things at a time. That is my limit. If you give me 28, I break”. When someone wanted me to do something they usually started by asking me what number I was at. Since my head injury I find it is a lot harder for me to concentrate and I have to really pay attention for spelling, grammar, words etc., errors. I think I would be happy if I could master multitasking two things now. 😉

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    1. Michelle, I totally understand. I’ve tried to multitask for years. I may have even thought I was good at it. But something has changed for me as well. I’m so sorry that your head injury has forced changes on you. Maybe in some way the changes are good, right? I think the brain wins, whether we like it or not. The brain decides. Mine is also telling me to try a different way. I’m trying to get more out of the all minutes of my day! Multitasking two things, according to the article, is no easy feat. 😉

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    1. I bet you have lots going on at once, Shalagh, with your many creative endeavors. Hopefully, they feed off one another and that helps the process along. 🙂 Yes, you can tell me. Thanks. Love ya, too!! Birthday Girl!!! I will be by your blog! xoxo

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  3. I’ve never been a fan of multitasking. I like to focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes I have to do a couple things at once, but I’m not happy about it. And that includes making dinner. Trying to coordinate everything, get the table set, empty the dishwasher, etc. all at the same time is hard enough. But when my hubs comes in and wants to chat while I’m doing it all, it’s harder for me to focus. So I always say (nicely, of course; well, mostly nicely of course…), let’s save the conversation for dinner.

    Great article, Amy.

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    1. I’ve never liked multitasking either, but always feel the pull with all the many distractions we have now. Plus, when it’s seen as positive almost necessary thing, I think we feel it’s required. I’ve come to learn it doesn’t help very much and I usually feel too scattered from trying to accomplish anything this way. It’s kind of relief to realize that the brain just doesn’t agree with this, although I’m the research is still ongoing. Dinner is a great time for conversation. It seems whenever you start fixing dinner, everyone needs something. Right. Now. Thanks, Carrie. Thanks for all the Twitter love. I so appreciate that!

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  4. How I hate it when an interviewer asks if I can multitask! Ugh. The older I get, the more I want to take my time with ONE task. Hell, most days I can barely handle that anymore.

    As for anxiety and thoughts bombarding your brain–that’s me. I do write lists all the time to help empty those worries out of my head (I have lists about lists…) but the biggest thing, the only thing that really helps me quiet my mind is meditation. I’ve been meditating for over 20 years now and I swear it. Can’t wait to read your next post!

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    1. I know the feeling, Darla, of wanting to get SOMETHING done! Just one thing off my list. I think lists are useful, but I think even if they aren’t “to do” items and you just write out what you’re thinking, it can help isolate the true things that you’re mind is stewing over.
      Wow, well you’re the expert with meditation! I’ve only just begun with my breathing on purpose and I’m hooked. I hope I can say something useful or meaningful to you. 🙂

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      1. No doubt you will! I still need to work on my breathing. The funny thing about meditating is even though I’ve done it a long time, it still takes practice, practice, practice. I still have some days I don’t do it or when I try I can’t turn my mind off. It’s something I continually struggle with.

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      2. I will be working on my breathing along with you. I am by no means an expert, Darla. I’m just excited about it. It’s such a great thing to for yourself, but can be such a challenge. The Yin yoga has made the difference for me. I think I need the mind-body connection. Who knew it would be so hard to be still and to just be?

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      1. That’s nice. Thank you Amy.
        I’m fine. Having acupuncture now. No more useless chemical medications. Yay !
        Of course they are up to no good. Their recent idea is to find a woman for me. Ha ! Some hope ! xox ❤

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      2. Oh very good, Ralph. I hope that acupuncture is working its magic. And no more chemicals. What a relief. I hope you are feeling better.
        Kitties can accomplish anything they put their minds to, so don’t give up hope! xoxo

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  5. I’d respond to this, but I’m watching the Republican Presidential debate, got pizza in the oven, am drinking a beer, and my brain simply can’t handle anymore.

    But I’ll say this … you’re right. We’d all be doing far better if we were able to isolate things and address them on their own without having 73 different distractions flying in through the window as we consider each thing.

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    1. Well, now you just got me hungry. I hope you’re enjoying that pizza and beer. Truly. I hope the topic of your TV experience is not taking away from your meal. 🙂
      Life is just one big distraction at times. Focusing becomes an impossible task! I hope you can at least on your pizza and beer. Enjoy, Mark. 🙂

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      1. Pizza. Good.
        Beer. Good.
        (Hopefully, you just read that in your internal caveperson voice, because that’s how it was intended.)
        Republican debate. OMG. Like, are these people serious?
        (hopefully, you read that in your best valley girl voice, because that’s how it was intended.)
        And all of this means that, yes, the beer was the best thing.
        Save me.

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      2. I did my valley girl. 🙂 I don’t have cable so I can’t watch it. Oh, darn! Mark. Good. If you’re going to watch it, you went about it the right way. Will we be getting an update on your blog?

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      3. I’ll have to think of a post on my blog. I posted comments on Facebook throughout the debate. Maybe I’ll transfer those over to my blog. I entered this campaign season trying to swear off this whole thing, but I find myself fascinated by these debates — given the large number of candidates, given the Trump factor, given so much. It is just a fascinating thing to watch. It’s a train wreck. It’s an exercise in democracy. It’s just sheer madness. And I am addicted.

        So, yeah, maybe I’ll post something, but I’m not sure yet.

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    1. I do! But I don’t need to take your word, I agree completely. There is an art to slacking that somehow gives one more purpose and more meaning. 🙂 Sometimes, there’s no fun in all the trying and sometimes you just have to let go. One commenter said it quite well. If you’re always multitasking you can always be in state of undone, unfinished and never get deep enough to feel like anything is meaningful.

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  6. Very interesting. Sometimes you can’t help but to try multi-tasking but it does always seem more frustrating and more mistakes are made. In the end I always end up making a list and accomplishing each item 1 at a time. Good to know I’m on the right track. Now I just need to remember not to try multi-tasking in the first place.

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    1. Multitasking seems to be part of our culture and even encouraged. I mentioned the list making as not items to complete but rather just a way to get your thoughts out on paper. You might see your mind is not as busy as you think it is. So, I say list form so you can see the thoughts itemized, but not a “to do” list per se. You don’t have to complete the items as you would a real “to do” list. Am I making any sense? Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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  7. Awesome post, Amy. I like to think I can multi task (until I burn the dinner). I actually think women are better at this than men. I’ve noticed men often turn the radio in the car down when they’re parking (have you ever noticed this?) because they can’t concentrate on parking and listening to the radio at the same time – LOL 😀

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    1. Thanks, Dianne. Exactly. I think I can do it, too, until I fall apart and burn dinner! Men are not able to even dual-task! I’m with you there. That’s funny that he turns off the music. Your husband is a serious parker. 🙂

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  8. So absolutely true! Love this piece, Amy! Thank you for pointing out that we don’t have to buy into this myth! I am usually forced to wear many hats at any given time, but it’s not by choice! I get really frazzled when I have to do too much all at once and then I don’t do anything well at all. I need to breathe right now just thinking about it! Long, stressful day anyway… Fantastic post 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Kelly. Glad you enjoyed my piece! You’re so sweet. I think we’re almost expected to multitask these days. It’s like everybody does it. And to think how often I’ve called myself a multitasker. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like it! I think the brain is absolutely fascinating. Maybe in time, people won’t expect multitasking and realize it’s really not healthy and it probably never saves time. Oh, Kelly, breathe, breathe…hope you can melt away the day with something relaxing doing only one thing! Thanks so much. xoxo

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  9. Multitasking gives the illusion of progress – it’s easier to tell several people “I’m doing it now” than tell one “I’m doing it now” and the rest “I haven’t started yet, I prioritised someone else” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Multitasking is generally a concept that means the boss wants to squeeze as much as they can from you. You are right about doing one thing at a time, even thinking one thing at a time…..Now what was I saying?

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    1. Exactly, Bumba. They want to squeeze as much as they can out of you, don’t they? Even if that means you’re walking into walls while doing it. I hope they get the memo that humans don’t function this way. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The trick to successful “multi-tasking,” I think Amy, is to be able to prioritize well, and know when it’s time to move down and back up the list. There. Does that sound like a good interview answer? Because I’ll use it! 🙂

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