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Why Multitasking Doesn't Save You Time

Woman smiling at baby

How good do you think you are at multitasking? At this moment, you probably have multiple browsers open on your computer, your phone has a prime spot next to your computer and emails continue their steady stream into your inbox.

It’s the new normal. Every day, we are constantly bombarded with endless interruptions such as, emails, IM, phone calls, texts, just to name a few. Neurological studies show that every time we switch from one task to another, our brains have to reset and rather than saving time by doing two things at once, it actually increases the time it takes to complete a task because our brains need to stop and start again.

Essentially, multitasking doesn’t make us more efficient, it actually slows us down. The Potential Project, a group based out of Denmark, created a test to illustrate this. Here’s the test:


  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper

  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:

  • On the first line, write:

  • I am a great multitasker

  • On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:

  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s try to multitask.

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter from the same sentence on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter "I" and then the number "1" and then the letter "a" and then the number "2" and so on, until you complete both lines.

I a…..

1 2…..

How did you do? Most likely, your time is twice as much than it was on the first round. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number.

I used to think I was brilliant at multitasking. I once sewed a table runner while I was nursing my son. Pretty impressive, right? I confess, it wasn’t my most shining moment, but it’s so tempting to try to fit as much as you can in one day.

The truth is, most of us are terrible at multitasking. In fact, according to RescueTime, a time management software company,

“Multiple studies confirm that true multitasking—doing more than one task at the same time—is a myth. Those people who think they can split their attention between multiple tasks at once aren’t actually getting more done. In fact, they’re doing less, getting more stressed out, and performing worse than those who single-task.”

After looking into the email habits of 50,000+ knowledge workers, they stated, “Not only did we find that on average they spend 40.1% of their day multitasking with email and IM, we also found most people can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking those tools.”

The Power of Single Tasking

People who shut out disruptions have a major advantage. If you want to achieve quality work in a short period of time, you are better off sticking to one task at a time. According to Rescue Time,

“When you expend extra energy trying to multitask, you end up exhausted and behind on work. When you focus on one thing at a time, however, you’re more likely to get into a state of flow, actually finish what you wanted to, and in turn, lower your workplace stress levels.”

How can you limit interruptions and be more productive? 

  • When you are working on a task, either mute or turn off notifications from your computer or phone. That friendly little “ping” you hear is begging for your attention, but ultimately, it can be a distraction that chews up a large portion of your day.

  • Resist the urge to respond to everything immediately.

  • Plan your day more efficiently. Schedule certain times to make phone calls, check digital devices and email, rather than addressing each message as it hits your inbox.

  • Take breaks to maintain focus. Get up and walk around for 5 minutes every 30 minutes.

  • Keep your desk organized and free of clutter. Clutter has been proven to cause stress and increase anxiety. Physical clutter draws our attention away from what we need to focus on.

  • When possible, try to work in an environment without a lot of excess noise. If you need to concentrate on a project, use headphones or find a quiet spot away from distractions.

“Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.”

 -John Carmack

Many of us realize the things we need to focus on each day. The key is identifying those things that slow us down and prevent us from moving forward. Although there is no stopping the steady stream of information we receive every day, we can choose how and when we react. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe there is a certain sense of calm that comes from focusing on one thing at a time.

The truth is, multitasking doesn't save you time. Perhaps the best advice is to slow down and do one thing at a time… and do it well.



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