I was recently asked to write an article on multitasking and wanted to share some of those insights with you. The take home message  – there is no such thing as multitasking, at least for your brain. The human brain, even yours, is not wired for multitasking. The brain is complex and sophisticated enough to put a man on the moon, but it has a fatal flaw. The brain is only capable of paying attention to one thing at a time.

This may be hard to believe given the numerous reponsibilities we are bombarded with daily. But even while you are diligently juggling 20 tasks simultaneously, your brain is actually only paying attention to one at a time. When you multitask, your brain has to rapidly shift attention back and forth between those items at hand. This very minute your brain may be toggling among reading this blog, your blackberry pinging, the telephone ringing, and your toddler crying in the next room.

Why is this important? It turns out that the microseconds it takes our brain to toggle between items has a time cost associated. And the time costs increase the more complicated the tasks. In other words, when we multitask, we lose time!  Those microseconds lost with each attentional shift can really add up at the end of the day. That is the myth of multitasking.

Researchers from the Federal Aviation Administration in collaboration with the University of Michigan found that students asked to solve 2 math problems did so faster if they completed one at a time consecutively rather than simultaneously. The speed of task completion was also faster if the task was less complex and familiar.

This research suggests one way to improve human performance is to stop multitasking! Your brain truly works most efficiently when completing one task before attending to the next. Contrary to popular belief you are not saving time by having your email inbox open 24/7. You are losing time. Feel free to share this blog with your boss.

Some practical tips:

  • Try answering emails on a schedule i.e. 3 times/day.
  • Open only one computer program at a time and complete that task before opening the next window.
  • Hang your version of a Do Not Disturb sign to limit interruptions.
  • Limit cell phone use while driving (those microseconds of shifting attention could cost a life).
  • Remove all technology from the dinner table.
  • For household mail use the OHIO principile “Only Handle it Once”. Act on it, file it, or toss it. Just don’t pile it!
  • In conversations practice repeating back or paraphrasing what you just heard. It forces you to focus and helps the other person feel understood.
  • Meditate – the ultimate focus!

Theresa Cerulli, M.D.