Are There Downsides To Multitasking At Work?

Multitasking is a valuable skill in a variety of environments and functions. Whether we realize it or not, we've all multitasked at some point — at home and at work. In its simplest forms, multitasking is when you juggle more than one task at the same time. For instance, you can speak with a client on the phone while going through a contract or listen to a presentation at a meeting while replying to an email on the computer. It's like you're doing the job of two or three people at the same time.

The ability to deal with multiple tasks simultaneously helps you cope with busy periods, boosts resilience and brain power, and makes you look good in the eyes of employers. Having said that, it's one thing to multitask, it's another thing to multitask successfully. Turns out, not everyone thrives in a dual-task condition. A 2010 study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review finds that only 2.5% of people who multitask can do so effectively and efficiently. This somber figure tells us that there are more monotaskers out there than multitaskers. While multitasking is often looked at as a barometer of productivity in the workplace, it can be counterproductive for many people and make their work life a living hell. Here's what happens when you try very hard to multitask at work.

The brain can only deal with one task at a time

Whenever you think that you're multitasking, think again. According to neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu (via Cleveland Clinic), we are all monotaskers by nature, and our brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time. "When we think we're multitasking, most often, we aren't really doing two things at once. But instead, we're doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching," she explains.

Every second, the human brain receives up to 11 million bits of information from the environment, but the conscious mind can only process 40 to 50 bits of what it's presented with, per CFA Institute. To handle this massive amount of information quickly and efficiently, our brain uses mental shortcuts to filter the data overload, which can ultimately lead to poor decision-making and decreased productivity.

Biologically speaking, the ability of humans to multitask is severely constrained by a neuronal network in the frontal lobe of the brain, explains researchers from Vanderbilt University. It means our brains are wired in such a way that the amount of attention we can give each and every task is limited, and there's only so much information our brain can digest and retain. The key to boosting our productivity is not to do more with one brain but rather invest it wisely, so you have more time left to attend to other tasks.

Multitasking can decrease your work productivity

Juggling between different tasks at the same time makes it impossible to dedicate your 100% attention and energy to any task at all. When you can't make efficient use of the time given to you for each task, the result is mediocrity. A study published in the journal Materia Socio Medica shows that we become less effective and get more susceptible to mistakes when our brains are constantly rushing back and forth between tasks. Therefore, although multitasking sounds like a way to boost productivity, it can make you deviate from the tasks at hand, make mistakes, and waste time remedying the damage.

If you're dealing with a handful of complicated tasks, make a list of your top priorities and work on them one at a time. Per Monotasking Tips, monotasking helps maximize accuracy, improve your work quality, and expand your attention span. When you give your whole attention to a singular task instead of spreading yourself too thin, you complete the task faster with a higher degree of accuracy. To inject a sense of urgency, set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and commit to completing your task within that amount of time. Once you're done, cross the task off your list to give yourself a sense of achievement and move on to the next one. Before the day ends, you'll be surprised to find yourself with extra time and less stress.

Multitasking stands in the way of creativity

Multitasking can put a damper on your creative power. According to Harvard Business Review, research shows that multitaskers tend to miss information and end up achieving less as a result of a 40% reduction in productivity. The reason being is that it typically takes an average of 15 minutes for a person to return to a primary task after being distracted by a secondary one — such as answering a phone call or checking an email. By that time, one's long-term memory has taken a hit, and creativity has also been reduced.

As psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk shares on Psychology Today, numerous studies on creativity demonstrate that the prefrontal cortex — the cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe — is responsible for connecting ideas and is central to creativity. Concentration-wise, the prefrontal brain can only take on one task at a time, and it runs on empty when you multitask. If you don't give your prefrontal cortex time and space to analyze and respond to information, your thinking capabilities will be affected, and you'll have a hard time churning out new ideas. If you want to unleash your creativity to the fullest, stop adding pressure to your prefrontal cortex and start getting in the groove with one assignment at a time. Not only does it help you free up some intellectual and mental space, but it also allows you to preserve your energy, setting you in the right mood for creative thinking.

Multitasking results in lower mindfulness

Multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness, which is crucial to mental clarity and long-term emotional well-being. According to a study in the journal Scientific Reports, multitasking is generally linked to deteriorated attention control and decreased cognitive capabilities. Mindless and frantic multitasking — which makes it impossible for you to intentionally pay attention to the current environment with a receptive attitude — is not good for your mental health or your work experiences in the long run. Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, tells The Guardian: "We can spend so much time rushing from one task to another. We may think we're working more efficiently, but as far as the brain is concerned, we are working against the grain. No wonder we get exhausted."

Every moment at work can be a hassle. From a neurological point of view, being mindful helps you take a step back and think things through rather than merely taking mental shortcuts to respond to circumstances. Practicing mindfulness at the workplace doesn't always mean you have to shut yourself in an empty meeting room for hours and do breathing techniques when you're tapped out. Mindfulness can be about slowing down and channeling all of your attention into one thing at a time — which is practically next-level single-tasking. 

Multitasking can make you burn out faster

Attempts to deal with varying levels of workload at the same time can cause you stress and eventually contribute to burnout, shares burnout expert Siobhan Murray with Thrive Global. You might feel as though multitasking is your only chance to get things done, but the reality is it only hinders your capacity to finish each task quickly and effectively, which only adds to your stress at the end of the day, Murray explains. Multitasking can trigger a stress reactive response that further impairs your cognitive function, psychologist Dr. Jeff Comer shares on Psychology Today. What ensues is your logical reasoning and functioning are hindered, you make more mistakes in your work, and you become stressed when your productivity goes down — it's a vicious cycle. 

It's also worth pointing out that multitaskers are usually go-getters who derive great pleasure from single-handedly overcoming obstacles and coming across as overachievers. Independence can be a blessing and a curse. In a working environment, your propensity to take on challenges all by yourself may alienate your coworkers because you rarely give them the chance to support you on the job. If you want to maintain your interpersonal skills and expand your workplace connections, avoid multitasking if possible and, instead, ask for help when you need it.