The Myth of Multitasking

We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more efficient, but it only makes us unhappy, says Sharon Salzberg.

Sharon Salzberg
2 October 2020

We would like to believe that attention is infinite, but it isn’t. That is why multitasking is a misnomer. The brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both. This does not mean that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, of course. What we cannot do is concentrate in the same moment on two distinct, input-rich activities that require our attention. While we may be able to talk on the phone and stir coffee simultaneously, we can’t carry on a conversation and text at the same time without losing information and time. Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to switch their attention back and forth, they take—on average—50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors. That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a complex process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time you waste and the lower your quality of work.

Strung out by information overload, however, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction. “Successful” multitasking has been shown to activate the reward circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels—the brain chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopamine rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes. This is comparable to the rush you might feel while playing the slot machines in a casino. Stimulated and entertained by the flashing lights, the ringing bells, and the distracting, carnival-like atmosphere, gamblers go into a pleasure trance, addicted to the illusion of winning money when, in fact, they’re going broke. It’s important to be aware of how multitasking can stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and harming performance. “When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit,” is ancient wisdom. Hopping rapidly from one thing to the next, answering the phone while we’re shuffling papers while we’re sipping a latte, we fritter away our attention and forget more easily. In addition to dopamine, multitasking prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems. This also means that the information we take in while multitasking is harder to retrieve later than information we take in while concentrating. That is why learning to be a unitasker in a multitasking world is so vital.

Debunking the myth of multitasking, we become much better at what we do and increase the chance of being able to remember the details of work we have done in the past.

Rather than divide our attention, it is far more effective to take frequent breaks between intervals of sustained, one-pointed attention. A Web designer named Brian figured this out for himself with no knowledge of neuroscience. “I work for a community news site and have to be online from nine to five,” Brian says. “It can really fry the brain and get tedious. I’ve found that if I take ten minutes or so for every hour of work to do something for myself, like read somebody’s blog or take a walk, it helps me concentrate when I turn back to my duties.” Although this may sound difficult, Brian’s increased focus enables him to return to the task at hand with surprising ease. “Instead of hopping from thing to thing—which is so tempting with the Internet—I focus on what’s in front of me. Then I let myself dillydally to give my brain a rest. When it comes to work, less is definitely more in terms of feeling satisfied. And efficient.” While this may sound counterintuitive, relaxing our focus for regular intervals and pacing our sustained concentration sharpens attention and renders the mind more flexible.

Debunking the myth of multitasking, we become much better at what we do and increase the chance of being able to remember the details of work we have done in the past.

The Pauses That Refresh Us

Being more in touch with our motivations or intentions will reveal a lot about the ethical dimension of our actions. Before a conversation, pause for a few moments to determine what you would most like to come out of it. Do you want most to be seen as right or as helpful? Do you want to foster progress or hinder it? Also pause before sending an email, with the same reflection: What do I most want to see come from this communication? The other party to feel diminished or encouraged? Them to go away or increase their involvement in my project? And do the same thing before a specific choice or decision—What do I most want to see as the outcome? Peace or excitement? Ease or stimulation? You don’t need to condemn what you see or decide you’ll always see the same thing inside yourself, like a fixed characteristic, but try to become more sensitive to what is motivating you in this moment before you speak or act.

One Thing at a Time

In this meditation, we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity. At a time when you’re not likely to be distracted or disturbed by obligations, make yourself some tea. Fill the teakettle slowly, listening to the changing tone of the water as the level rises, the bubbling as it boils, the hissing of steam, the whistle of the pot. Slowly measure loose tea into a strainer, place it in the pot, and inhale the fragrant vapor as it steeps. Feel the heft of the pot and the smooth receptivity of the cup. Continue the meditation as you reach for a cup: Observe its color and shape and the way it changes with the color of the tea. Put your hands around it and feel its warmth. As you lift it, feel the gentle exertion in your hand and forearm. Hear the tea faintly slosh as you lift the cup. Inhale the scented steam and experience the smoothness of the cup on your lips, the light mist on your face, the warmth or slight scald of the first sip on your tongue. Taste the tea; what flavor do you detect? Notice any leaf bits on your tongue, the sensation of swallowing, the warmth traveling the length of your throat. Feel your breath against the cup creating a tiny cloud of steam. Feel yourself put the cup down. Focus on each separate step in the drinking of tea.

9 Tips for Stealth Meditation at Work

  1. As you sit down to work, scan the sensations in your body, from your head to your feet. Notice areas of tension and breathe into them.
  2. Nourish yourself! Eat a meal mindfully, noticing the colors, the flavors, the textures of what you are eating.
  3. Try to perform a simple, conscious act of kindness every day. It can be as simple as holding an elevator door or saying thank you in a sincere manner.
  4. Mentally acknowledge those who have helped you learn the skills you have, who have taught you to be better at your job. We are all part of a larger web.
  5. Notice how you are holding something in your hand—a pencil or a cup, for instance. Sometimes we exert so much force holding things it exacerbates tension without our realizing it.
  6. Every time you feel bored, pay more attention to the moment. Are you listening carefully or are you multitasking?
  7. Read an entire email twice before composing a response.
  8. Travel to work some days without your iPod, book, or phone. Experience the transition to work as a journey.
  9. For an upcoming one-on-one conversation, resolve to listen more and speak less.

Reprinted from Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness; her seminal work, Lovingkindness; and her latest, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.