Myth: Multitasking Saves Time

You might believe that multitasking is an efficient means of getting stuff done quickly. You might also believe that there is a Sasquatch population thriving in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. For each case, I want to believe it is true. However, facing the facts, I have reluctantly accepted that each is a myth.

While my agnostic love for Sas will continue despite no scientific evidence of his existence, my penchant for multitasking has quickly faded based on several recent articles (here, or here), and personal experience, which illustrate how task switching actually zaps time from your day and slows down the flow of work.

Here’s why.

The Sticky Science of Multitasking

Even though the human mind is very efficient at switching focus from one task to another, in doing so you lose time in re-establishing the context of your new task. In certain instances when the tasks are relatively simple, any loss in time is nominal and the results can be totally acceptable (think cooking dinner while talking on the phone).

As the number and complexity of these tasks starts to increase however, the capacity to maintain focus and efficiently process each task simultaneously quickly diminishes (think solving a differential equation while learning Cantonese via books on tape). While this can be done to some extent, it comes at a cost of added time or poor quality.

So how do we juggle our crazy work and personal lives without sacrificing our valuable time or producing lackluster results?

While multitasking is a necessary evil that keeps our lives running for certain activities (see the first example above), taking the time to focus on and complete single critical tasks will actually result in better results, faster (solve your differential equation first, then listen to Rosetta Stone). While this approach might seem simplistic and perhaps counter-intuitive, you will find that concentrating on the task at hand until completion is the best use of your time.

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