Don’t Multitask: Your Brain Will Thank You

Chronic multitasking could be making you less productive. Why? Because your brain is on overload.

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

The ability to juggle work is a standard job requirement.

Researchers have another name for this supposedly desirable skill, however: chronic multitasking.

If this sounds more like an affliction than a resumé booster, that’s because research has shown again and again that the human mind isn’t meant to multitask. Even worse, research shows that multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function.

In a 2009 study, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass challenged 262 college students to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory. Nass and his colleagues expected that frequent multitaskers would outperform nonmultitaskers on at least some of these activities.

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They found the opposite: Chronic multitaskers were abysmal at all three tasks. The scariest part: Only one of the experiments actually involved multitasking, signaling to Nass that even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively.

Multitasking is a weakness, not a strength. In 2010, a study by neuroscientists at the French medical research agency Inserm showed that when people focus on two tasks simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task.

This suggests a two-task limit on what the human brain can handle. Taking on more tasks increases the likelihood of errors, so Nass suggests what he calls the 20-minute rule. Rather than switching tasks from minute to minute, dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task, then switch to the next one.

His second tip: “Don’t be a sucker for email.” The average professional spends about 23 percent of the day emailing, studies show. Inspired by that statistic, Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleague Stephen Voida infiltrated an office, cut 13 employees off from email for five days, strapped heart monitors to their chests, and tracked their computer use. Not surprisingly, the employees were less stressed when cut off from email. They focused on one task for longer periods of time and switched screens less often, thereby minimizing multitasking.

Mark and Voida encourage business owners and their employees to check emails a few scheduled times per day and turn email notifications off the rest of the time. Adds Voida: “Quick questions are often better asked face to face or by phone, where they don’t add to the huge amount of email we’re already dealing with.”

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84 comments
KasiaKrn
KasiaKrn

Wow, it's good to know that  my workplace handles time management in a brain-friendly way :) We're also into focusing on one task at a time, but also using iterative models, just like in web development. If you want to find out what it's all about, here's a post from our blog: https://netguru.co/blog/time-saving-hacks-project-management

TheTruEssence
TheTruEssence

@r0ck3tr0d men. Are the majority in the business world therefore you must take that into account when reading the article.

r0ck3tr0d
r0ck3tr0d

@TheTruEssence y'all use both sides of brain simultaneously and we mostly use left, I left that fact out on purpose lol my bad

r0ck3tr0d
r0ck3tr0d

@TheTruEssence we mostly use left only I was trying to say ...u def have your facts correct Ms. Essence

wefloatyou
wefloatyou

@TheTruEssence @r0ck3tr0d - Care to quantify that? Women are more SOCIALLY ENGINEERED to multitask... doesn't mean they actually CAN multitask, without suffering consequences.

bbrooks
bbrooks

@nmyra are really just splitting their time and attention into smaller slices than you; no one can really do more than one thing at a time.

bbrooks
bbrooks

@nmyra Multitasking is the art of distracting yourself from two things you’d rather not be doing by doing them simultaneously. -Merlin Mann

Kane_rogers
Kane_rogers

@jarruzza This was the best advice someone ever gave me. Took me years to finally follow it, but man it makes a difference.

Sean_M_Anderson
Sean_M_Anderson

@yogiabroad I can't tell you how much damage twitter has done to my brain. I really couldn't: I'd get distracted after 8 seconds & forget.

DanAntonson
DanAntonson

@mgallizzi couldn't agree more. No one is good at multi-tasking, I always laugh when I hear people are good at it in interviews.

mireldev
mireldev

@gretascl Io sono sempre in multitasking infatti anche ora sto facesfdfhgfvgdbhffvfdv

Prof_Keenan
Prof_Keenan

@kainilsen Thanks Kai! I was just talking with my students about this last week - perfect timing

Lordhackv
Lordhackv

@SuperIRis se supone, que porque no pones la atención necesaria. yo digo que están ardidos.

lawyerfuru
lawyerfuru

@NorikSuzuki @TIME 同感です!でも、今の時代、業務の電話、メールどころかメッセンジャーでの連絡もあったり、20分継続するのも大変ですよね。。。

DabizLegend
DabizLegend

@TIME Using too many programming languages = Instant brain freeze.