Multitasking is counterproductive

Many claim they are “good at multitasking”, and you might have said and believed that too. The truth is we are not able to multitask. Our brains are build to focus on a single thing at a time, and all they can do is rapidly switch between different tasks. Every time the brain switches to another task, it is disrupted and needs time to regain focus on the new task, load details about the task in progress and resume actually working on it. This means multitasking is counterproductive, and you waste time re-focusing on each task.

Multitasking With Simple Tasks

There are tasks that you find very easy to do and require little attention, like walking for example. You have done this so many times that the brain can do this seemingly automatically. You can walk and talk to somebody at the same time, and you will find this easy because the brain is able to shift attention quickly between the two tasks. This appears to be working quite well for you until any of the two tasks becomes more complicated. Let’s say for example that the person you are talking to gives you some devastating news – for a while you are likely to ignore eventual dirt or small objects in front of you or even hit a pole. Something requiring your decision or increased attention from the walking activity (an obstacle, road crossing, a fast-moving object you spot with your peripheral view) will often make you miss some words your interlocutor said. Usually, you can make that up from the context and you don’t even notice it, but these are clear signs your multitasking ability is not working as you thought.

Inattentional Deafness

Some activities and tasks compete for the same brain regions, leading to a so-called inattentional deafness. That’s why when you are focused on a visual task, for example, you are not processing normal-level surrounding sounds. Researchers from University College London conducted an experiment on this subject 1)Katharine Molloy, Timothy D. Griffiths, Maria Chait and Nilli Lavie – Inattentional Deafness: Visual Load Leads to Time-Specific Suppression of Auditory Evoked Responses. They used magnetoencephalography to record the brain activity of 13 subjects while performing some visual tasks and being exposed to certain sounds. The conclusion of the study was that when the visual tasks were demanding enough, the brain’s response to sounds was significantly reduced. The very important aspect of this experiment is that the scans showed that the subjects were not simply ignoring the sounds, but they were actually not hearing them. It appears to be a mechanism situated at the very early stage of auditory processing causing this inattentional deafness.

Did it ever happen to you to talk to somebody deeply immersed in a vide-game or a movie, and be ignored? It is very likely that they did not even hear you in the first place, so don’t hold a grudge.

Now think about talking on the phone while driving (with a hands-free system, of course). It sounds like an easy multitasking scenario you are great at, right? If you really think about it, you will recall situations when something happened in traffic and you totally missed some parts of the conversation. This is actually a happy situation, and things could get a lot worse: studies show that when we talk on the phone we tend to visualize things. This collides directly with the driving ability, as it requires the same brain parts that interpret what you actually see. A few extra fractions of a second can have dramatic consequences. In such circumstances, multitasking is not only counterproductive but quite dangerous.

Inattentional deafness does not only impact hearing. You’ve very likely already seen experiments like the ones I will point to, but they make a strong point for my case. Please take a few moments to watch this:

Multimedia Multitasking

We are consuming more and more multimedia in our modern society. The internet, smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets have drastically changed the way we interact with the world. We have access to a world of information with very little effort, but on the other hand, we also expose ourselves to new dangers. I’m only going to discuss here exposing ourselves to multiple streams of information at the same time. Many of us tend to do quite a lot of multimedia multitasking. When did you last time jumped between reading and replying to emails to a WhatsApp conversation, perhaps while also answering a phone call and eventually also having the TV on in the background?

According to a study conducted by communication Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford University2)Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner – Cognitive control in media multitaskers, the heavy multimedia multitaskers are actually paying a high mental price, becoming easily distracted. He analyzed 100 students and concluded that people who are heavy multimedia multitaskers tend to be way easily distracted from the task at hand, underperforming compared to the light multitaskers.

These persons that usually multitask tend to have a lower ability to filter out external information (or even memories) that is not relevant to the task they are performing. This makes them lose focus and have decreased efficiency. I believe this makes good proof that multitasking is counterproductive.

More studies are needed in order to understand if heavy multitasking is causing this, or if they are born with this inability to concentrate on a specific task and this leads to heavy multitasking.

Multitasking is Counterproductive

In this day and age, we are bombarded with information, and it is easy to overwhelm our brains with too much irrelevant information, decreasing our performance. Next time you are tempted to check your email while watching TV or talking to a friend, or even worse to check your email or text messages while in a meeting, think that you would be way more efficient at any of the tasks by doing them one at a time.


1Katharine Molloy, Timothy D. Griffiths, Maria Chait and Nilli Lavie – Inattentional Deafness: Visual Load Leads to Time-Specific Suppression of Auditory Evoked Responses
2Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner – Cognitive control in media multitaskers