April 22, 2023

The Myth of Multitasking

The brain never does any two things or more simultaneously. And by extension, we can't do more than one thing at a time. When we do multiple things in one hour, we are switching between tasks multiples times.

Many anti-multitaskers would tell you that it's not good. There's truth in that, but I also think task switching is a useful skill to have.

When we need to do creative work, or need focused attention to get something done, then multitasking isn't the way to go. Whenever we let other things pull our attention, distracting us from the current project we're working on, it's hard to regain focus immediately. We waste precious minutes trying to refocus.

That's because of attention residue—our mind is still processing the previous task, and is unable to immediately shelve it.

But task switching is still something we do everyday.

  • When we transition from exercise to making breakfast, to sitting down to work.
  • And in between, when we see trash littered anywhere at home, we switch to picking it up and throwing it away.
  • We get up from our workstation to drink a glass of water and take a restroom break.
  • When preparing dinner, we switch from cooking on the stove, chopping vegetables, placing the other dish in the oven to bake, getting serving plates and utensils, and cleaning up.
  • Parents experience more of this—when a toddler wants to play, and the older brother needs to prepare for school, and the cat's on the kitchen counter, looking to take a bite off the scrambled eggs. And then there's the laundry that needs to be taken care of.
  • Sometimes, work demands it too. When something urgent comes up and we need to put the current project on hold. When we need to scrap the plan altogether, because new market insights came to light. And when we need to go through our to-do list, task by task.

Multitasking is a myth. And accepting that means understanding that task switching consumes brain power. That every time a distraction, or an equally important task, grabs our attention, we can't go back to the previous task immediately and without losing energy.

But we must also understand that task switching is a necessary skill in our day-to-day lives.