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In the past, many people believed that multitasking was a good way to increase productivity. Recent research has shown that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity.


Have you ever made a phone call, while you emailed someone and then texted back and forth with someone else? As you were simultaneously performing these activities, you might have thought that you were a great multitasker. That is, until the person on the phone asked you a question to which you had no answer…. since you were not fully invested in it, the point of the conversation has been lost to you. You have just experienced what research is showing over and over again: humans are not very good at multitasking.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have now established that dividing attention across multiple activities is taxing on the brain, and can sometimes reduce productivity as much as 40%. Furthermore, it has been shown that multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. According to the research, only 10% of the human population can multitask efficiently; for the rest of us, doing many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability.

Yes, walking and chewing gum is multitasking, since we are performing two or more tasks simultaneously. However, multitasking can also involve switching back and forth from one thing to another, or performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

In order to establish the impact of multitasking, psychologists asked study participants to switch tasks and then measured how much time was lost by switching. In one study participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than when they repeated the same task. Back in 2001 another study found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks, and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.

Watching TV, folding the laundry

Indeed. It takes time for our brain’s “executive functions control” to do many things at once. When you are switching back and forth between your word document to the excel spreadsheet, your brain is adapting itself to the rules each software entails. As you might know by now, word, excel, outlook are complete worlds unto themselves. And while you multitask, this is what your brain is doing:
“Goal shifting” – which is deciding to do one thing instead of another.
“Role activation” -changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task.
Switching between these may only add a time cost of just a few tenths of a second, but if you are in a situation where safety is important such as when you are driving a car in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical.

Of course there are the exceptions to the rule. Human beings can balance tasks that use unrelated mental and physical resources, such as folding the laundry and watching the news. More complicated tasks will become messier when using this formula. Our brain can also handle multitasking when performing actions or activities that have become habitual, such as walking and holding a conversation, something a toddler who is learning how to walk-and talk- would find impossible.

When so much needs to get done, what is a person to do? Drumroll please: FOCUS. Do one thing at a time. If you find this answer deflating, you are not alone. Paying attention, remaining with one task until it’s done and then moving on to the next, is something that our culture does not support or consider worthy of praise. Eastern cultures have attention developing arts, such as the Japanese, where martial arts, ikebana, and origami are treasured as mainstays of their way of life. The West has embraced mindfulness as a way to develop your “paying attention, stay put” mental muscle. If this sounds like a challenge worth taking, talk to us. We promise to only listen… and not text.

PILAR ANGEL, axeos co-founder

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