Why You're Not Smart Enough to Multitask (And How to Do It If You Must!)

Studies show just two percent of us can handle multitasking, yet we keep trying -- and failing

The headlines read variously, “Multitasking Is Making You Stupid,” “Multitasking is Making You Dumb,” and “Red Sox Manager Crashes Bike While Reading a Text.” Google “multitasking” and it’s hard to avoid concluding that this once essential life skill has been consigned to the scrap heap along with big, fat shoulder pads and the corded phone.

Except for one thing: Everybody’s still doing it. Or trying to, anyway.

Organizational expert Rosemary Tator says many of us -- herself included -- are basically multitasking junkies. “[It's] like an addiction. It allows us to live under the illusion that we can do it all. 'Watch me go.' We end up doing things in fits and starts, not as well, but we rationalize and keep going. And after a while, people feel that they can’t get anything done without multitasking.”

Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done laments, “It’s become a heroic word in our vocabulary. There’s a cultural pressure to multitask, that’s a big part of why people do it. We’ve all been taught that we can be efficient; we can be productive by being multitaskers. Never mind that this is just not true.”

The truth is the brain literally cannot multitask. While it may seem like you are juggling all those balls simultaneously, what you are really doing is switching your concentration rapidly between tasks and frequently dropping something in the process. For all but a very few, the brain cannot manage critical thinking processes for more than one task at a time.

Multitasking doesn’t get more accomplished or get anything done faster or better. Extensive research at the University of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition and Action has found that, to the contrary, when 98 percent of people multitask brainy activities they make many more errors and tasks take longer -- often double the time or more -- than if they were done one at a time. The lucky 2.5 percent who can solve world hunger, do the laundry and read this on their mobile all at the same time have structurally different brains, according to research. The rest of us? We're just not that special.

And research has shown that the inability to multitask only gets worse with age. The jig is up by the time we hit 30. It's even harder for men -- a recent British study found the first evidence to support that women are better at getting lots of shit done than men(we could have told you that).

But we digress. So, how do we tackle a mountainous to-do list if multitasking doesn’t work?

Background tasking

“When people say they are good multitaskers, they’re really talking about background tasking,” says Crenshaw. Background tasking includes doing the laundry, setting the table, picking up the living room and other mundane tasks you perform by rote.

Tator is all for multitasking of activities that won’t come to grief if concentration falters. If you can get brainless, busy-work tasks done on multiple fronts, more power to you, and you'll have more time for activities that do require undiluted focus.

Basically, it’s all well and good until somebody loses an eye. An unwatched pot will still boil and maybe even burn the house to the ground if we are too distracted with making the bed or checking something online.

Multitasking bigger projects

So, is this all just a matter of semantics? What about when you 're at work and given five projects with the same deadline? Let’s face it: we don’t have the luxury of dillydallying on anything anymore. So what do you do?

Let’s think of multitasking as time-sharing, say the scientists. If the projects are not time-sensitive, break them down into tasks that you can safely get back to later. Remember, your brain cannot rapidly switch between functions without dropping the ball on something, so you have to be smart about how you go back and forth between projects.

Allot blocks of time. To avoid distraction, assign specific blocks of time for handling emails or phone calls, but don’t respond to every incoming call or email in real time until the allotted time slot. If you can’t restrain the urge to browse Facebook and Twitter, turn off your browser.

Mark your spot. Per David Allen, management guru and author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stree-Free Productivity,  “Successfully alternating between tasks has to do with whether you can keep track of what you’re in the midst of. A placeholder, like a quick note or email to yourself marking where you're at when you get interrupted, may be all you need.”

Set deadlines. Making a big to-do list without prioritizing, setting deadlines and reminders and using a calendar, is a big fail in time management. If you tend to get lost in something, set an alarm to remind yourself of what's up next.

Have a backup plan. Have a fallback task ready to go if you hit a roadblock or need a break.

In praise of procrastination. Sometimes the best use of your time is taking a break and procrastinating, Allen says. “Procrastination just means don’t do it right now. Many times that’s exactly what you need to do to maintain your balance and equilibrium. If you are getting scrambled-eggs brain, why not relax by snacking on emails or taking a 20 minute nap? You need the ability to do nothing.”

Take 15 minutes daily. Inventory what you need to do on a regular basis, suggests Tator. Catch yourself at the end of the day (and yes, this can be in front of the TV) and make some choices. How did today go? What do I need to do tomorrow? What can I put off?

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