The key working aim of the 21st century, so far, has undoubtedly been to work smarter not harder. The idea of a healthy work/life balance has become the holy grail of success and books like Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek have swept off the shelves.

Because of this, many of us have been looking for ways to increase our productivity, while decreasing our working hours. It’s, perhaps, because of this that the idea of multitasking has gained such popularity.

When multitasking, we try to do more than one thing at a time. This could involve things like:

  • Checking and answering emails while on a phone call
  • Catching up with meeting notes while engaging with customers on social media
  • Switching between two projects at a time
  • Tweeting/texting friends while working
  • Using a laptop in front of the TV

Many of us find ourselves doing combinations of tasks like this on a daily basis and we think this helps us to get our work done quicker.

But does it?

What do scientific studies say?

In recent years, there’s been a lot of scientific research on the phenomenon of multitasking. Much of this research has centered around young people and how they cope with switching between tasks and tech devices.

You may be surprised to know that the findings of these studies are not all positive. In fact, many of them have shown that multitasking actually has the opposite effect than we think: it makes us less productive.

Here’s why;

Time is lost by switching from task to task

The time it takes to switch between an email inbox, a web browser and a text document may only be seconds, but this can really add up. It can also take longer for us to refocus mentally on each task than just the physical time it takes, especially when one or more of the tasks are complicated. This process is called switching costs and is explained in more detail by the American Psychological Association.

Heavy multitaskers find it difficult to tune out distractions

When we’re working there are always distractions. Whether it’s a sunny day outside, chatting co-workers, a news website or a buzzing phone; it’s important to tune those things out in order to stay productive. However, heavy multitaskers may find this more difficult than those who focus on just one thing at a time. A Stanford study has shown that when we’re multitasking, we’re less able to filter out irrelevant information and are therefore much more likely to be distracted by it.

Multitasking creates mental blocks

When you try and do two things at the same time, you are asking your brain to to use two different parts of itself simultaneously. It’s impossible for it do this and so, instead, it flicks very quickly from one to the other. In some cases, this can cause a mental block, resulting in a productivity decrease. In the 2001 study Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching, it was suggested that this decrease could be as large as 40%.

Long term reliance on multitasking can cause cognitive impairment

The more you rely on multitasking, the greater risk you have of suffering from cognitive impairment. Multitasking not only impairs performance in the present, it can also impair your ability to focus and avoid mental blocks in the future. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Clifford Nass explained how repeated reliance on multitasking can mean that we’re less able to keep our working memory in order.

What does this mean for us?

Computers, smartphones and tablets may have made it easier than ever to multitask; but that doesn’t mean we should! Studies have shown that multitasking can hurt more than it can help and that in most cases it’s better to focus on just one thing at a time.

So next time you sit down to do your important work, remember that switching on the TV or staying tuned into Twitter could reduce your productivity by up to 40%!