Leaders & Teams

Beware of your multitasking habits

Can you recognise having a never-ending to-do list? Our modern technology gives us many opportunities to engage with multiple tasks at any given moment. But how do our brains react to multitasking, and how can we use our cognitive resources most wisely?

One way many of us try to keep up with a high in-flow of things to do, is to multitask. We might be checking our text messages while having a conversation with a colleague, or trying to prepare a presentation while participating in a chat-conversation, or the classical scenario; sitting in a meeting and using the time to answer a few e-mails. Given that our technology gives us the possibility to engage with multiple tasks at almost any given moment, there are plenty of opportunities here.

Our brains are not wired for multitasking

The bad news is that our brains are not very good at multitasking. Now you might want to protest and argue that you know of many occasions where you can multitask well, and yes – of course you can. Our brains can handle multiple things at the same time, but only if it can run them on autopilot.

Imagine that we learn to drive a car. Shifting gears isn’t easy at the start, so it requires our full attention. As we get more experienced however, we can shift gears without using much cognitive attention. The same goes for many other things in life. When certain activities have become automated, we can perform many of them simultaneously without using much mental energy on them.

When we talk about multitasking as a problem, we are referring to trying to do multiple things at the same time that require cognitive capacity or frontal lobe activation. That part of our brain has limited processing capacity – basically it can only focus on one thing at the time.

The effects of multitasking

Let us take the scenario that we are in a meeting. You are listening to a colleague doing a presentation. But you just have to answer a few emails, so you discretely open your inbox and start typing away. You might have the illusion that you are actually listening to the presentation at the same time as you are answering emails. But what your brain actually does is shift your attention back and forth between the presenter and your email. That shifting of attention back and forth requires a lot of energy for your brain.

As mentioned earlier, one way our brains cope with multitasking is to run things on autopilot. In this scenario this could mean that you only hear the presenter saying what you expected them to say, and you miss the interesting new details they share. Or, that what you are writing in your email is more of a knee-jerk response than a well thought through answer.

Basically, what research[1] indicates is that, a good way for us to make more mistakes and feel overwhelmed, stressed and tired after a day at work is to multitask as much as possible…

Become more aware of your habits

Ok, so this is not necessarily happy news for any of us. Multitasking is still part of our reality, and depending on your job role, it can be very difficult to avoid. The game changer here is to become aware of your multitasking habits. No doubt, there are many occasions where we will find ourselves in situations where we will need to multitask one way or the other, but by knowing how that influences our brain and our effectiveness, we might want to approach our work differently.

Here are some questions you can reflect on around your own multitasking habits:

  • Is it possible for you to set aside periods of time during your day and week where you can work undisturbed? Some research indicates that we work best in undisturbed bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a short break. Search for ‘pomodoro method’ to learn more about this idea.
  • What notifications could you turn off on your devices? Just hearing a notification pulls away part of our attention, even when you don’t check your devices.
  • Do you have helpful ground rules that work for you and your team? We all have different needs. By having a shared understanding of how our brains work, you can create routines that support more focused and effective work.


[1] Daniel J. Levetin, The Organized Mind

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