For the Last Time: You Can’t Multitask

Productivity drops, the brain shrinks and people can actually die when we switch between tasks. So why do we still think our minds are equipped to do more than one thing at a time?

Scientists have been saying the human brain can't multitask since before the texting-while-driving era — so why are we still fooling ourselves? (Photo by Mike Mozart, courtesy of flickr.)

When researching new developments in neurology and psychology, I come across monthly studies that confirm over and over again the human brain is incapable of multitasking. Enough already, right?

Hold on — I just got a text message. Let me just send a reply.

Okay, back. Oh, you need to check your phone, too? I’ll wait.

If you keep checking your phone, email, Facebook, Twitter or whatever while reading this article, I guarantee you’ll miss something. Now imagine employees bombarded with email alerts, text messages and interrupting co-workers while they try to learn one of the organization’s mission-critical procedures.

“Task switching” is a far better term for the inefficient and sometimes dangerous way the brain shifts between two actions, rather than completes both at the same time, as “multitasking” would indicate. That means two tasks are competing for the brain’s full attention and resources, which results in 40 percent less productivity and a shrinking brain. Apply it to the texting-while-driving and -walking practice, and you may have a recipe for death, too.

Inc. reported the shrinking brain stat in October 2014. Months before that, Psychology Today published “The Myth of Multitasking.” The article detailed a study discussing that the brain takes twice as long to complete two tasks when it switches between them. That wasn’t the first time this concept appeared, however — a study from the mid-1990s examined the cost of task switching, before people could text, let alone text and drive.

This isn’t new, so why do we still insist on putting “excellent multitasker” on our résumés like it’s a valued skill instead of a self-delusion?

“We’re overwhelmed and desperate — we’re much more bombarded with demands,” said Devora Zack, author of “Singletasking.” “It can seem pie-in-the-sky to say people should be able to single-task. Many people say it’s a luxury.”

There’s also a lack of tools to help with single-tasking. That’s where CLOs come in; they can tackle the two biggest drivers of the multitasking myth: employees’ brains and their environment. The first takes persuasion. The second takes policy.

Create buy-in and get employees to change their mindsets by explaining that task switching not only kills productivity but also can fatally wound relationships. “We are disrespectful through our distracted lives, which is not helping us personally or professionally,” Zack said. “Our brain should be in the same place as our body.”

Add in the phrase “multitasking shrinks the brain,” and you should have a solid argument.

The next step is to change the environment. Here are a few ideas:

Turn off alerts. Call me dense, but I just found out I can turn off those little pop-up boxes Outlook throws at me whenever I get an email. Encourage employees to do the same, and leave their phones in the drawer, to cut down on distractions.

Cluster tasks. Get employees to schedule similar duties, like responding to emails, into designated blocks of time. This will result in more mindful communication and fewer errors in grammar, content and tone. How many of us have half-focused on writing an email that left us cringing for the response?

Make meetings mobile-free. Collect all phones, tablets and laptops in a basket. Or, if you’ve got the right culture for this, consider what I do with friends when we go out for dinner. Everyone puts their phone in the middle of the table. If you check it during the meal, you pay the entire tab. Whoever checks their phone during a learning session has to pay for lunch.

“It’s your responsibility to not be using your phone,” Zack said. “It really comes from this erroneous belief that we need to be everywhere for everyone. The only place that gets us is being nowhere for anybody.”

So that’s it. You’ve reached the end of the blog. You can now check your email, phone, watch, etc.