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Is Multi-Tasking Actually Making You LESS Productive?


By Vicki Little

Imagine you are going to a friend’s house for the first time. Your friend lives in an area you’re not that familiar with. You’re enjoying the ride, your radio is turned up as you sing along, and your GPS system is guiding you perfectly. Then suddenly you hear, “In 500 feet you will arrive at your destination.” You turn down the radio and lean forward, straining to see the numbers. Sounds accurate, right? But why did you turn down the radio? It wasn’t like you were listening for the address. You did this because you had to really focus, according to certified professional organizer Alice Price of Organize Long Island, Inc. You had to switch off the physical acts of listening and singing to engage your brain to focus on finding the right location.

If we can’t even listen to the radio while looking for a house number as we drive, are we really multi-tasking in other areas of our life? Is the typical portrayal of a busy mom who can balance the baby on her hip while cooking dinner, talking on the phone, and scrolling through email realistic? The answer is yes – and no. If you are engaged in two physical activities at once, and one of them is a very automatic action, such as brushing your teeth or walking on a treadmill, then your mind can absolutely watch TV or listen to an iPod at the same time. Mental activities, however, are different.

You can really only focus on one mental activity at a time, so you are never truly multi-tasking, but rather, toggling between two activities. Price explains that when you are learning something new or doing something that is very difficult, your pre-frontal cortex is very engaged. The more of an “old habit” an activity becomes, the more your pre-frontal cortex backs off and your basal ganglia takes over and frees up those cognitive processes for other things. To use the earlier example, you no longer need to turn down the radio to find the house because you know exactly where it is.

Think about the wi-fi in your house. If only one person is online, then the speed is great. As you add more people to it, the speed gets slower and slower and some pages have a harder time loading. This is what happens as you multi-task. Your pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) is your wi-fi. Multi-tasking means both activities will suffer because your full attention isn’t on either of them. It will actually take you longer to complete each task — and the quality will suffer, too.

The answer to being more productive isn’t to eliminate multi-tasking, however. Maura Thomas, an author and founder of Regain Your Time, believes the goal is to control when and what you are multitasking. Thomas states, “it’s fine to combine tasks that don’t require too much mental energy, such as catching up with a girlfriend by phone while I empty the dishwasher or fold the laundry.  Neither of these things require much concentration and the consequences of distraction are minor (I might have to ask my friend to repeat something, or put the dishes in the wrong cabinet.)  If I am driving down the highway and I answer the phone, out of habit, simply because it rings, I did not decide.  I inadvertently relinquished control over the situation.”

If you want to be more productive, the key is to control your environment when you are engaged in thought-intensive tasks. Turn off the notifications on your phone or email, log off Facebook, turn off the TV and radio, and focus on what you’re doing. When you are doing physical or routine activities, that is the time you can multitask.

A final fun fact for you. Have you ever wondered why you get those great ideas right as you are drifting off to sleep or while you are taking a shower? Price divulges that this is because if your executive function is turned off and you are doing only one thing and it is only using your basil ganglia, so your creative brain gets a jolt of blood and oxygen and non-linear thinking solutions arise. Who knew?


Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two children. A Colorado native, she spends her time writing, sitting in the bleachers for her daughter’s gymnastics, and engaging in spirited debates with her son. In her free time…well, she is still waiting for some of that.


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