Multitasking – myth or reality?

Expected read time: 2 min

It’s a myth!

The human brain cannot focus on two high-level tasks at the same time and every time you feel like you’re multitasking, what you’re really doing is rapidly switching between different tasks.

This is called context switching.

Multitasking serena wong Multitasking serena wong

Why do we try to multitask?

Sure, you can walk and talk at the same time, but those are low-level functions your body can do almost automatically from muscle memory.

Tasks that require some brain power, such as talking, reading, or listening require focus and the human brain is not able to fully concentrate on two high-level tasks at the same time.

Instead, our prefrontal cortex chooses what we focus on and then puts all other processes in the background. You know how that feels if you ever took a call while you were also writing an email.

Multitasking Ono Kosuki Multitasking Ono Kosuki

The limited capacity of our working memory

In truth, our working memory has a very limited capacity.

And it also needs some downtime between tasks to turn our short-term memories (memories that last 15 – 30 seconds) into long-term memories.

Overloading your memory with too many tasks at once will make it pick priorities based on immediate needs, not what is best to remember long-term.

Multitasking keys in fridge Multitasking keys in fridge

Ever come home, your hands full of groceries, talking on the phone, and then later wonder where you put your keys after you opened the door?

Your short-term memory was busy with the groceries and the phone call and was unable to properly store the information about your keys in the process.

Doing two things at the same time

In truth, we can multitask if one of the tasks is a low-level one that doesn’t require much brain power.

For example, you can listen to music while you read, but that’s because only one of those tasks requires you to actively use your brain.

This example is why we also try to apply the same approach to tasks that require focus. However, the process here is different – our brain starts context switching, missing out on important parts of all of the tasks in the process. We start making mistakes and get stressed out.

Multitasking Gerd Altmann Multitasking Gerd Altmann

We also try to multitask when we get distracted by a conversation, a phone call or a message on one of the many social or work-related apps.

We are social animals by nature and focus on messages from other people almost automatically, even when we try not to.

Multitasking is stressful

Multitasking doesn’t just make us less productive; it also has a negative impact on our stress levels and overall mental well-being.

Because your focus is divided between multiple tasks, it affects the quality of your work, you are more likely to make mistakes or act impulsively.

It can even become dangerous when multitasking involves doing something while driving (don’t text and drive!)

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