The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

a month ago   •   5 min read

By Zero Machina

Have you ever described yourself as a good multitasker?

Chances are you’re not as effective as you may think. One study showed that only 2.5 percent of people can multitask effectively!

If you’re not part of the elite 2.5 percent, multitasking is probably not as beneficial as you assume. Outlined below are some pros and cons of multitasking, plus tips on what you can do instead.

What Is Multitasking?

Multitasking describes the act of doing multiple tasks at the same time — for example, reviewing a document while responding to text messages, all while listening to your coworker tell a story about their weekend.

The word "multitasking" implies that you can do two or more tasks at the same time. But this is a bit misleading. Our brains only let us do one thing at a time, and we have to switch back and forth between tasks.

You might spend a few seconds reading a document. Then, when a text notification pops up, you concentrate on the contents of the message.  Meanwhile, your coworker is sharing a story, but only a part of your brain is processing what’s being said.

This type of task-switching takes a toll on your productivity, as well as your ability to retain information.

The Positive Effects of Multitasking

There are a few potential multitasking benefits.

Meet Deadlines Easier

If you have multiple tasks that need to be completed by a certain date, multitasking may help you meet deadlines more easily.

This will be most useful for simple and mundane tasks. For example, if you need to answer email correspondence and update your website, multitasking may help you complete both tasks within the desired timeframe.

By doing multiple tasks simultaneously, you may be able to get more done in a shorter amount of time.

Complete Multiple Simple Tasks at Once

If you have to complete several simple tasks, multitasking might be appropriate.

For example, you might be able to make copies while also responding to text messages or making a phone call.

However, if any of the tasks are complex or require your full attention, multitasking may not be the best option.

The Negative Effects of Multitasking

There are some pros to multitasking, but most experts agree that it tends to do more harm than good. Here are the drawbacks of multitasking:

Decreases Productivity

A lot of people try to multitask because they think it makes them more productive. In reality, the opposite is true.

Research shows that productivity decreases by up to 40 percent when people constantly switch from task to task.

Task-switching requires the human brain to re-adjust each time you move on to a new task. This process uses valuable energy and takes time, which ultimately decreases your productivity.

Diminishes Performance

Multitasking diminishes your performance.

It’s difficult to give your full attention to multiple tasks at once. When you try to complete several tasks simultaneously, it’s likely that all of them will suffer.

This is especially true if any of the tasks are complex or require critical thinking.

For example, if you’re working on a work project and also trying to have a conversation with a coworker, chances are neither task will receive your full attention.

You might not perform as well on the work project, and your conversation with the coworker might be less meaningful since you’re not fully present.

This can lead to mistakes, which may cause you to have to go back and fix things — further decreasing your performance and productivity.

Increases Stress

Trying to complete multiple tasks at the same time can be stressful.

Since multitasking reduces performance and productivity, you'll struggle to keep up with the demands of your work. This leaves you feeling frazzled and overwhelmed. Or worse-- burnout.

When you’re constantly trying to do too much at once, it takes a toll on your mental and emotional health.

If the cycle continues, chronic stress can lead to health problems and illnesses, such as cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

If you regularly try to multitask, you’ll likely find that your stress levels increases.

Affects Mental Health

Ongoing stress from multitasking can also harm your mental health.

Those who frequently engage in heavy media-multitasking, for instance, have been shown to have reduced grey matter in their brains.

Grey matter makes up the outer layer of the brain and plays a key role in helping humans function normally. It controls movement, memory retention, emotional regulation, and more.

Smaller grey matter density is linked to negative psychosocial and cognitive abilities.  And those who experience reductions in the grey matter are more likely to struggle with mental health issues like depression.

The stress brought on by multitasking could also trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms for those who struggle with anxiety disorders.

Weakens Short-Term Memory

Multitasking also makes it harder for you to remember the information you’re taking in.

Studies show that people who frequently multitask perform worse on simple memory tasks compared to those who don’t. This is because multitasking requires the human brain to rapidly switch from one task to another.

When you do this, the information from the first task isn’t fully processed before you move on to the next one. As a result, it’s more difficult for you to remember what you were doing or learning.

How to Stop Multitasking

If you want to improve your productivity and performance, it’s important to find ways to break your multitasking habits in key areas of your life.  These tips can help.

1. Mute Notifications

One of the easiest ways to stop multitasking is to mute notifications on your devices. This includes push notifications, text messages, and email alerts.

When you mute notifications, you’re less likely to be distracted by incoming messages and notifications. This allows you to focus on the task at hand without being interrupted.

Make it harder for yourself to get distracted.

2. Use an Autoresponder

An autoresponder is a great way to limit distractions while you’re working.

It allows you to set up an automated response that will be sent to anyone who tries to contact you.

This way, you can let people know that you’re unavailable and will get back to them as soon as possible without having to stop what you’re doing to type out a response.

3. Establish Office Hours

Setting "office hours" is a good way to stop multitasking.

This involves setting specific times when you’re available to answer calls, respond to emails, and take care of other work-related tasks.

This gives you time for uninterrupted focus, and lets others know when they can expect a response from you.

4. Replace Multitasking with Deep Work

Deep work involves giving one task your full attention with no distractions. Make time in your schedule for this type of work rather than trying to do several things at once.

This can help you get more done in less time, and improve the quality of your work.

Next Steps: Goodbye Multitasking

While multitasking may seem like a good way to get more done in less time, it can actually have the opposite effect.

It can make you less productive, increase your stress levels, damage your mental health, and weaken your short-term memory.

If you want to improve your productivity, it’s important to find ways to break your multitasking habits in key areas of your life.

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