The Multitasking Myth

Is multitasking a good idea?

As busy moms, most of us think that we are the ultimate multitaskers. We make dinner while helping our kids review for their test and checking our email on our smart phones all at the same time. However, are we really focusing carefully on any of those tasks?

It might surprise you to know that multitasking is actually a MYTH.

I know that I have burnt bacon (a cry worthy offense from someone who has a “body by bacon” shirt) when I was also working on something else and forgot to check the oven. How many of you have been checking your phone while going upstairs to get something and completely forgot what you went up for? (I’m raising my hand too.)

The worst example of multitasking is when you see the car in front of you going a little too slow or weaving a bit too much, only to find the driver texting on their phone.

We have many ways of multitasking, but is it actually the best way to live?

In short, NO. The trouble with multitasking is that we aren’t giving any of these activities our full attention. I didn’t burn the bacon because I don’t know how to cook. I simply wasn’t paying attention because I was focused on something else.

Have you ever been checking your email or the latest Facebook post and missed the important story your child was recounting from the school day? Or even worse, you just answer with the perfunctory “uh,huh, great!” instead of actively engaging in your child’s story. I know I have been there before.

The Science of Multitasking

The truth is multitasking is inefficient and unproductive. The science behind multitasking indicates that our brain really isn’t multitasking at all.

Instead, the brain is switching focus of the prefrontal cortex from one activity to another, but not truly concentrating on both at the same time. Or, depending on the tasks, the brain might be able to use both sides of the prefrontal cortex for two different activities, but one activity will still be the priority, as discussed in this article.

If an activity is automatic to us, such as walking, then our brain isn’t taxed in the same way as with something requiring more concentration. This explains why we can go for a walk and listen to a podcast at the same time, because walking is something that we don’t have to think about. However, we can’t listen to a podcast and have a conversation at the same time, because those activities both use similar parts of the brain.

When you multitask, you risk losing the quality of whatever it is you are doing- whether it’s a report for your boss or an important email. Multitasking also causes you to take longer to do the two or more tasks you’re trying to do, than if you just focused on one activity at a time.

The reason behind this is discussed in this article. The switching between tasks leads to lost time as the brain tries to switch from one activity to the next and then back again. Especially when the tasks are more complex, such as those you might be dealing with at work.

Every time the brain has to switch activities, it has to go through 2 stages: goal shifting (identifying that this is the task I’m doing now) and rule activation (I have to turn off the prior task’s rules and turn on the current task’s rules). Obviously, this can cost us precious time without even realizing what our brain is doing.

The time costs can be significant. In this article, Dr. David Meyer discusses how one can lose as much as 20-40% of time when forced to switch between tasks. No small number in my mind!

Think about how much time you could find every day just by stopping the multitasking. If you spend 30 minutes performing two tasks that would only take about 20 minutes by doing them separately, that’s 10 minutes of saved time. If you do this multiple times per day, you could find SEVERAL HOURS per week to do more of what you want. And who couldn’t use more free time?

That doesn’t mean you can never multitask again. It just means that you need to prioritize and decide if it’s the best idea at the time. For example, doing dishes while having a conversation with someone won’t cause any major repercussions. However, the aforementioned texting and driving can have deadly results.


Enter: Schedule Nugget Strategy

What I propose as an alternative to multitasking is the Schedule Nugget Strategy. Schedule nuggets are basically blocks of time designated for each task. You finish one task and then move on to the next.

The beauty of this concept is that you are really giving your full attention to one activity and are likely to finish it in a more productive manner.

The Schedule Nugget Strategy can be used both at work and at home. The blocks of time assigned to each activity can vary and be as little as 15-30 minutes or many hours long. The length of time doesn’t matter, although I would suggest taking a break at least once every hour or two if you are sitting down.

Some important key points with using the Schedule Nugget Strategy:

  • Let your family, coworkers know AHEAD OF TIME that you’re working on an important project for X amount of time and when you will be available- hopefully that will prevent any unwanted bouts of multitasking or interruptions.
  • Only focus on ONE TASK at hand- no interruptions (except for an emergency), no wasted time.
  • SILENCE your phone or put it away where you can’t see or hear it if it’s usually a distraction for you.
  • Emails, social media, phone calls, messages CAN ALL WAIT (once again except for a true emergency, like the building is on fire)- I promise, no one is that important, including you.
  • If your boss complains and says you MUST multitask, prove him/her wrong– show them that you can be just as efficient using the Schedule Nugget Strategy and actually do it, of course in the most respectful manor as possible (preferably without any four letter words, ahem).

Remember, nothing is too silly or crazy to include in your schedule nuggets. If you can’t find time for something, put in in your schedule! Creating a schedule like this helps you define your priorities and gives you permission to do them, whether it’s binge watching Stranger Things or getting a new tattoo of your dog (no judgement here;-). If you’re not sure where to start, you might want to read my post on prioritizing.

By now you should know why it’s time to END the multitasking madness! By choosing to focus on one task at a time, you give yourself the gift of time. And who doesn’t want more of that in this crazy world?

Are you a compulsive multitasker? Do you think my Schedule Nugget Strategy can help? Please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

Reference: Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

“If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.”

-Russian proverb

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