Is multitasking productive?

Reading time 10 minutes

Multitasking is a myth. The brain can’t complete 2 high-level tasks at the same time states Chris Adams, in  “Can People Really Multitask?”  So what are we really doing when we work on 2 things at the same time?

Task layering 

People believe they can multi-task because the body can do a physical activity and a cognitive activity at the same time.  So people are able to walk and talk, run and listen to a book etc.   The new term I have heard for this is task layering.  We certainly can do task layering, don’t get it confused with multitasking. Task “layering” is defined as strategically deciding to do tasks that require different “channels” of mental functioning such as visual, auditory, manual or language.  Read more about task laying that actually works in this article

Multitasking 

The brain does not do two cognitive tasks at the same time.  The brain switches between tasks, very quickly.  Every time the brain switches tasks it must determine how much of the task has been completed and what the next step would be and then continue with the task.  This time contributes to the slowing down of completing the two tasks.  If the brain works on one task at a time it completes it without delay.  Try it, put an article in front of you and something to write.  Do them both at the same time and record how long it takes you to get the two tasks done. You will notice that you will keep going over the material to see where you left off as your concentration shifts between the tasks.   Next, do each task separately and time how long it takes to complete both tasks.

Bar graph showing error made during multitasking activities

More errors are made when people multitask

How to stop multitasking

In order to stop multitasking, plan your work schedule and remove the distraction of other work, e-mails, tweeting, phone calls, televisions, music etc.  Your work schedule may have lots of shifts in tasks.  Some people like to schedule a 60 -90 minute work session and then change tasks.  Other people may schedule 30-minute sessions and change tasks.  What works for you? Some people need to have music or white noise on to help them concentrate and block out distractions.  Other people find music distracting.  What helps you to keep your focus on one task at a time?

What do you think? Is multitasking productive? 

Julie Stobbe is a Trained Professional Organizer and Lifestyle Organizing Coach who brings happiness to homes and organization to offices, in person and virtually. She has been working with clients since 2006 to provide customized organizing solutions to suit their individual needs and situation. She uses her love of physical activity to reduce clutter, in your home and office. She guides and supports you to manage your time. If you’re in a difficult transition Julie can coach you to break-free of emotional clutter constraining you from living life on your terms. Online courses are available to help instruct, coach and support your organizing projects. Get started by downloading Tips for Reorganizing 9 Rooms.

Contact her at julie@mindoverclutter.ca

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Comments

  1. I’m a big believer in task-layering. I first heard that expression a month or so ago during an ICD class. I thought it was such a great description of something I do regularly. I agree that multi-tasking is a time waster.

    • Thanks for your comments. It is interesting to have a label for times when you do have 2 tasks moving forward at the same time that use different parts of your brain. I think I do more time management than task layering. I start laundry and set a time to remember to continue doing laundry while working on my computer. The laundry doesn’t really use any part of my brain only the computer work does. That is not really task layering, I don’t think.

  2. I love the phrase Task Layering. I do task layering. Multitasking doesn’t work for me at all. I need to focus on one task at a time and block time out for it. If I do not have that much attention on a particular day, I will block time in 15 or 30-minute increments instead of an hour or two.

  3. That’s such a great distinction between task-layering and multi-tasking. And that makes so much sense. When we introduce mindfulness into the conversation, it changes the experience of “doing” yet again. While I can walk and listen to a podcast or make a phone call simultaneously, I often choose NOT to do that so that I can be fully present with the walking part. It’s not always the case. There are times I do the task-layering. But it really is a different experience to give your total focus to one thing.

    • I like adding mindfulness to the conversation. Sometimes we need to be in the moment and focus on it. Concentrate and think and reflect on a situation. Sometimes we need to be distracted from a task so we can get it done because we would rather avoid it or procrastinate. It is good to have a number of tools, mindfulness, task layering, focusing to use in different situations to help get things accomplished.

  4. I had not heard the term “task layering” before – I guess that’s what I’m doing when I listen to a podcast while I cook or fold laundry! It’s so true that trying to do two things (and in some cases I’ve observed, three things) at the same time loses time, and results in more stress too. I love using the Pomodoro Technique for focusing on a task and then giving myself a short break.

    • Task layering helps me to get done the mundane tasks I don’t enjoy doing. It takes my mind of the mundane. lol. The Pomodoro technique works very well for me when I have big projects to get done. Thanks for sharing your comments.

  5. I have always known that I couldn’t multitask effectively, so I was long ago relieved to learn that the best one could hope for was task-switching, and that was destined to be failure. Thus, I happily uni-task.

    In fact, I’ve learned that I’m not great at task layering; I will always stop paying attention to what I’m listening to when I’m focused on something I can see. Even doing laundry while listening to a podcast, I’ll find I have to pause the podcast if I have to do something more complex than automatically tossing things into the washer; if I have to read a care label, I’ve ceased to listen to the podcast. (Of course, Julie, like you, I can work on tasks while the washer is doing it’s thing, but unless I want to risk shrinking my wardrobe, I don’t dare divide my focus when starting a load.) I can’t even listen to music while writing emails or reading articles!

    I’ve tried chatting on my cell phone with friends while I grocery shop, and I’m paralyzed. My ears and eyes can’t work in concert with one another. (Maybe this is why so many of us turn down the radio when we’re looking for an address?)

    The only time I can task layer is if both the of the things I’m doing are (relatively) unimportant. I can listen to music while going for a walk or working out, or I can eat while watching TV. Otherwise, I’m a one-task-at-a-time girl.

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