Sam Radford

June 7, 2021

There’s no such thing as multitasking

I always enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter. And his latest issue is no exception. 

In particular, his comments about multitasking were a good reminder:

And just to spell it out: the point here isn't "stop multitasking and focus on one thing, and you're a bad person if you don't!" Rather, it's that (with a few technical exceptions) you never actually are multitasking to begin with. Instead, you're just anxiously switching your attention rapidly between things – because you're not sure which one's more urgent, and/or because you think you'll get them done quicker that way, which is almost never true. 

Understanding that, in nearly all instances, what we think of as multitasking is in fact ‘anxiously switching your attention rapidly between things’ is powerful.

We often think of multitasking as a strength.

The reality is that, more often than not, it’s an obstacle to deep, focussed work.

Our brains are designed to work at their optimum sequentially. We do one thing. Then the next. And then the next. Jumping back and forth between tasks – under the false guise of multitasking – is a technique to ensure inefficiency. (Some research suggests we’re 40% less productive when multitasking!)

Most of us don’t have full control over our days and our agenda. But to the extent that we do, structuring our work as sequentially as possible will help us out no end. 

There is a freedom in recognising the truth that we’re never multitasking. The more we look to work in sync with how our brains best operate, the better. And if we can help the people around us – whether at work or at home – see this reality, we all end up in a place where we can do what we need to do far more efficiently.

It’s time to bury the lie that, ‘I’m great at multitasking’!  

–Sam

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@samradford | samradford.com