Chances are you check your e-mail while chatting on the phone, maybe sipping a cup of coffee and scribbling items on your to-do list while you’re at it. That would put you firmly in the camp of most Americans, who regularly multitask–and assume that technique allows them get more done in less time. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.
Recent research shows that not only does multitasking not save time, it actually hinders your ability to operate efficiently. Chief among the evidence, a study from Stanford University revealed that the brains of people who regularly attempt to do multiple tech-oriented tasks at once–such as e-mailing, IM-ing, watching TV and browsing the Internet–pay a high price. Researchers put 100 students through a series of three tests and found that those who identified themselves as multitaskers were less able to pay attention, had worse memories and switched tasks with more difficulty compared with students who multitasked infrequently
The concept that the brain can only truly process one stream of information at a time isn’t new to scientists. “Any time you do a task–whether it’s visual, auditory or otherwise–it draws on a specific set of cognitive operations. The more tasks you perform, the more you draw from that limited pool of resources. At least one, and typically several, of the things you’re attempting to do will suffer. It comes down to a resource deficit,” explains Charles Folk, Ph.D., director of Villanova University’s Cognitive Science Program.
It makes sense that you’d sacrifice some degree of quality for quantity. But what’s less obvious is the amount of time lost due to multitasking, says Folk. “People think that they can switch back and forth between tasks every few minutes, or even every few seconds, without consequences. But research shows us that it takes the brain time to get reoriented. Even if you jump right into the next project, you’re not going to immediately get in the swing of things, so to speak.”
The truth is, “multitasking is really an act of procrastination,” points out time management expert Laura Stack, author of Leave the Office Earlier. “It’s essentially a bad habit. People hope that whatever they’re distracting themselves with–an e-mail, an IM message, etc.–will be more interesting than what they’re currently doing.”
Some people are able to get better at multitasking over time, says neuroscientist and psychologist Michael Silverman, Ph.D., codirector of the Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “For example, teens and young adults are often so accustomed to doing 13 different things at once that they’re better able to perform those tasks than someone twice their age, who has less experience operating that way.” (Interestingly, Silverman says that some research suggests that the more intelligent you are, the more difficult it is to become a good multitasker; smart people seem inherently prone to focus on one thing at a time.)
Yet “even people who appear to multitask well usually feel stressed as a result,” says time management guru Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check Email in the Morning. “It has a wear-and-tear effect on the brain, and people who do this need tons of reparative time. They’re often the type who can’t do anything but watch TV at the end of the day, or spend the weekend in bed.”
Multitasking isn’t a practice-makes-perfect type of skill: Perfect isn’t possible when your attention is scattered. That’s true even in situations where you think you’ve got a skill down pat. “There are extremely few instances in which a person can actually operate on autopilot,” notes Folk. “Many people assume, for example, that they’re so accustomed to driving that talking on their cellphones while in the car is a cinch. And yet multiple studies show that no matter how often you do that, it’s not just impossible, it’s actually dangerous.”
Learning to mono-task in an über-busy culture that promotes, and even celebrates, multitasking, can be challenging–but it’s hardly impossible. What’s key, says Morgenstern, is understanding that the demand for an instant response (i.e., “I need it now” attitude you probably get from your co-workers and even your friends and family) is largely manufactured. “You can train others to understand that you don’t have to be immediately responsive in order to be effective. In time they’ll come to see that a slight delay isn’t the end of the world.” Of course, as every expert quoted in this story pointed out, it helps to limit sources of multitasking temptation. Don’t leave your e-mail or IM on all day long, turn the ringer on your phone off when you’re in the middle of a project, and put your CrackBerry in a locked drawer and only check it at set intervals throughout the day.
Remember, focus is a mental muscle that you have to develop, especially if yours has been weakened by years of multitasking. “Set a timer, and make yourself stick to one task for 10 minutes at a time. Add another minute or two until you’re able to work for at least 30 minute stretches,” advises Morgenstern. “Trust me, it gets easier when you realize that you can get so much more done–and in less time–when you mono-task.”