The Downside of Multitasking: It’s Much Worse than You Think

Provided by Troy Headrick from Thinker Boy: Blog & Art

*Troy Headrick is a thinker, writer, artist, educator, and adventurer who has lived in five countries.  He writes on a wide variety of subjects and has had work published in many print and online magazines, journals, newspapers, and blogs.  His blog, found at, includes short creative nonfiction pieces often of an autobiographical and humorous nature.  He is working on several book projects.*

I’m happy to see that my “Time Is Money” post on multitasking caused quite a stir.  It prompted a very interesting conversation and then Bogdan put together a really nice follow-up which he called “Multitasking vs Quick Switch.”  Again, a number of readers found his blog so thought-provoking that a really lively exchange followed.

I posted a comment to “Multitasking vs Quick Switch”, suggesting that I think multitasking goes beyond something we simply find annoying—it is certainly an annoyance that we are so busy with work and in our private lives that we often find ourselves doing many things simultaneously whether we want to or not—and is actually harmful.  I even speculated that I thought multitasking might be rewiring our brains in harmful ways.  Almost immediately after posting this comment, I did a quick internet search and found “What Multitasking Does to Your Brain,” by Drake Baer, which both corroborated my speculative assessment and left me feeling unsettled.

Baer says that research suggests that multitasking “stunts emotional intelligence” and “makes us less creative” (among other harmful things).  So I guess I wasn’t far off when I hypothesized about the potential for multitasking to really screw us up.

In one of the comments posted to “Multitasking vs Quick Switch”, Nik confessed that he or she—I’m sorry Nik, but I don’t know your gender—“would like to pay better attention when people talk to me” and suggested that multitasking was the culprit.  I’ve noticed that I similarly have more trouble really listening and hearing what others say when I’m in a conversation or while listening to a presentation than I used to.  So Nik and I have something in common and I bet we aren’t alone.  (In fact, I bet that many people would claim that they are losing their ability to pay close attention to the words of others.)  If this is a widespread phenomenon, then the implications are stark—we’re heading toward a period where people simply don’t connect as well (or understand one another as well) as they once did.  Imagine how a widespread degradation of emotional intelligence, caused at least partly by multitasking, might negatively affect our interpersonal relationships and the world we live in!

I think multitasking is perhaps rewiring our brains in a way that could potentially harm our ability to think critically and be skillful problem solvers.  Critical thinking involves the artful ability to discern and prioritize.  When we are presented with a large numbers of tasks to do and a very short time to complete them, we are likely to feel overwhelmed.  In such a situation, it is easy to panic and to make bad decisions.  Because everything needs to be completed NOW, that part of our brains which makes comparative judgments is apt to be short-circuited.  We have a hard time judging which things need doing first and which things can wait.  (Actually, multitasking makes us feel like nothing can wait.)  Everything, even things we would normally think of as being trivial if we had more time to understand their true importance (or lack thereof), looks equally significant.  Our ability to make sound judgments about the tasks we need to do decreases in proportion to the diminution of time we are given to think about them.

I strongly suspect that the human mind works best when it is allowed to focus.  There is more power and efficacy in mental concentration than there is in dilution.  And the intellect has much greater potency when it able to remain unified rather than being forced into a state of fragmentation.

These reasons and others should make us think long and hard about how we want to conduct ourselves professionally and personally.  It appears that the old minimalist saying “less is more” is one we need to ponder and build our lives around, especially if we want to remain healthy, happy, and capable of forming meaningful relationships.

So, I’m curious.  What experiences—both good and bad—have you had with multitasking?  Do you agree with my critique or am I missing something?  Perhaps I’ve overstated or understated the case?  I look forward to receiving your feedback.


28 thoughts on “The Downside of Multitasking: It’s Much Worse than You Think

  1. Multitasking can bring both positive and negative things depending if you are or not mindful of how or when it is used. Personally, I see it as a way of discipline when studying, as I had a real problem focusing if anyone near me would make a sound, until I taught myself to be able to do it by listening to different videos/music in the background. However, I agree on the fact that when you can, leave multitasking out, unless you know what you want to use it for and you are aware of both pros and cons.

  2. Excellent perspective. Thought provoking and scary, possibly because I am in agreement with your opinion. The worst thing I have done while multitasking (not the only) is put a huge irreparable gash in my car tire because I hit a traffic calmer going about 20+mph while fiddling with my car radio (at least it wasn’t the phone?!), and stressing/ rushing because I was running late due to trying to cram too much “to do” into a morning. Guess who’s day was a total loss after that! Universe lesson provided! The best thing…… get more shit done. Which is maybe why we continue to multitask?

    1. I also have had catastrophic things happen to me when I was trying to do too many things at once. The universe is likely trying to teach us a valuable lesson when these disasters take place. We have to be wise enough to see that a lesson is being taught, understand its meaning, and change our behavior accordingly.

      My hope for everyone for the upcoming new year is that we can all find a way of simplifying our lives so we feel less busy but also feel that we’re achieving more. Perhaps we need to rethink and redefine what we think “success” and “being successful” is?

    1. Actually, I find myself doing things on “autopilot” all the time. I mean I do things without even realizing that I’ve done them. This must mean that my mind is disengaged when I do them. This disengagement usually happens when I feel stressed because I’m being pulled in a million directions or am rushed and don’t have enough time to get everything done. This “automatic” behavior is very frustrating because it means I’m not really present in my life; I’m literally somewhere else–I’ve drifted away or off. It could also be called behaving mindlessly which is the opposite of mindfulness.

  3. Multitasking never works very well for me. For example, cooking and grading papers at the same time is a bad idea. I’ve burned many dinners by trying to do something else while I cooked. The only thing I can multitask is laundry and other things. I can sit and write or work while the washing machine goes. Then, when I have to take the laundry out, it forces me to take a break and move around. My husband is a true multitasker at work. I’m not sure how he does it, but his productivity is probably twice that of the other employees at his job. He’s in IT so he’ll start a process running and while that is going, he’ll take care of another task. Most of his coworkers just sit and watch the process. It seems to work for my husband, but not for me!

      1. Yes, it should. I always intuitively felt like multitasking was bad for people, but when I did a little research, I could see that it was much worse than I ever realized.

  4. I think your critique is absolutely right. Multitasking isn’t good for anybody, but it’s becoming harder to find other people who are willing to stop multitasking. A lot of people will still keep checking their phones or want the TV on even when you’re hanging out or playing a board game. When you go out in the world there are constant distractions in the form of TV’s, ads, or radio stations that are difficult or impossible to avoid. Even if we as individuals reduce our multitasking, we need to do something about the direction society is going.

    1. Agreed! And the thing is that most people don’t want to reduce multitasking… maybe some awareness about this will help them have an informed decision.

  5. Things which are practiced by majority of people, becomes a validation that it is right. This has also happened with multi tasking. It has become a habit, more specifically a BAD HABIT. It has been deeply rooted in this fast paced life, and slowly and steadily it is making are relationships hollow. It is making us less aware of our surroundings.

  6. I used to think of multitasking as a superior feature but now I disagree with myself. I think I do everything half-hearted if I multitask. Focusing is more natural for the mind.

  7. Multi-tasking is necessary in my vocation. I agree that sometimes too much importance is placed upon minor tasks but this decision comes when moving quickly and overwhelmed with assignments.

  8. I’ve loved these comments. Multi-tasking is a great example of Know not Do. A lot of us know it’s inefficient, but boy that doesn’t stop us from trying it out over…and over…..and over…..sheesh!

  9. But isn’t there also a positive side to multitasking? Oftentimes, it’s when I’m engaged in mundane tasks, like sorting the laundry, that an idea will come to mind that needs to be written or recorded right now lest it be lost forever. Yes, the laundry takes longer, but the gem of an idea – and with me, it’s preliminary steps, because I tend to get it started – are preserved.

    1. Do I really have to give as much attention to the laundry as I do to my next art project? This makes it seem like all things have the same importance, which they absolutely do not. And I do not agree that the mind can only do one thing well at a time. Good, attentive drivers with no accidents get home from work, skillfully having avoided wrecks with thoughtful precision; yet I doubt they stopped thinking about myriad other things while doing so, just doggedly attending to their driving. I know I’m coming down on the unpopular side of this but I tend to do my best thinking while keeping my sleeping husband warm with my legs locked around him and enjoying his snoring.

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