Are you more of a “one thing at a time” or an “all at once” person? In today’s world, being able to tackle different things at once is often required. We even mention multi-tasking in our CV as one of the skills that would qualify us for the job. But is multi-tasking really beneficial? 

Multi-tasking describes the process of working on two or more tasks at the same time. The idea behind doing that is to be more efficient and to save time. 

Many of us do it unintentionally, just check what you are currently doing apart from reading this blog: Are you also eating, listening to music or the TV, actively waiting for a friend to message back and checking your phone, painting your nails? When working on our computer, we tend to have several tabs open – doing the grocery online shopping whilst attending a meeting also counts as multi-tasking. 

According to research, we overestimate our ability to multi-task. It is considered far more inefficient than focusing on one task at a time. 

What happens in our brain during multi-tasking? 

Here is what happens in our brain when we take on a task: 

  1. We set a goal. 
  2. We identify what is needed to achieve our goal.
  3. We disregard irrelevant distractions. 

Taking on more than one task at a time interferes with point 3 because one task distracts us from the other – this can lead to cognitive errors. On another note, what we already know to complete one task cannot happen automatically due to the shift of focus from one task to another. 

More research needs to be done to confirm this, however, the assumption is that chronic multi-tasking changes our brain over time, and because of this, we face issues with focus and being easily distracted. 

The switching cost of multi-tasking 

When performing multi-tasking, we switch back and forth from one task to another. Our brain switches focus every time we work on one task or the other. What we call the “switching cost” is basically the loss of time, speed, and accuracy that happens during those switches. 

Different tasks at the same time mean different sources of attention which are competing with one another. Our performance is reduced because we are not able to give our best at either task when doing two or more at once. The more our tasks vary from one another, the higher the “switching cost”, according to research. 

In reality, against the actual idea behind multi-tasking, we are less efficient and slower. And it does not make any difference whether you try to tackle work-related tasks on your computer or whether you change a diaper whilst attending an online meeting – we are more efficient when doing one task at a time, as well as more able to tune in with our task and enjoy what we do without feeling distracted by something else on the agenda. 

In some situations, multi-tasking can pose a high risk: Imagine having a 30-minute lunch break in which you want to eat, pick up your child from school, and drop them off at grandma’s. Eating whilst driving seems like a good idea at first but not anymore when thinking of the possibility of dropping that sandwich on your pants, having to look for a cleaning wipe, being distracted from traffic and potentially causing an accident, right? 

From multi-tasking to single-tasking 

We are all used to multi-tasking in our daily lives to a certain extent and it can be difficult to step down from it. Next time you feel overwhelmed by all the tasks on your agenda, take a short moment to breathe and assess what is most important in that moment. Which task needs to be tackled first for peace of mind to work on the next one afterward?

Research shows that mindfulness can help to cope with the negative effects of multi-tasking – it goes well with single-tasking and focusing on what is happening in the present moment. 

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health.