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Multitasking is inefficient: 7 tips to avoid it

Juggling between different tasks is not the most efficient

So here is how you can increase your productivity

Did you know that multitasking is a feature primarily reserved for computers? That a term that is now used all the time, especially to describe the working methods of human beings considered to be efficient, is in fact derived from computer engineering and should warn us… We are neither programs nor robots.

Yet, how many of us can’t help but check our messages while doing something else? We do it In the office, in school, and at home. We think we’re doing several tasks at once to go faster, but in fact the quality of our work suffers as a result. Why are we desperately trying to look like those eight-armed oriental gods? We should try to relearn just completing one thing at a time.

Are there really “multitasking” people?

All in the same boat?

It is a common misconception that women are better at multitasking than men. Although this is not a scientifically proven fact, it is an invention of society. But this cliché is being challenged by an experiment at the University of Aachen. The researchers asked 48 men and 48 women to perform two filing tasks simultaneously: the participants had to file vowels and consonants by pressing a button with the index finger, and even and odd numbers by pressing the middle finger.

The conclusion is: if you want to manage several things at once, you’re all equally useless.

In fact, even those who claim to be multitaskers probably aren’t, according to a 2013 U.S. study on telephone use while driving. The researchers behind this study asked 200 people to take the OSPAN test (Operation Span, a protocol that consists of memorizing sequences of letters while responding to mathematical operations, for example) and drive simultaneously on a simulator. And the least we can say is that the results, once again, were not good…

What does science say?

Doing several things at the same time stimulates and excites many people. But at the same time, these personalities are also the ones who are most easily distracted and therefore least able to handle and complete several tasks correctly.

The explanation can be found as early as 1992 in the work of the psychologist Hal Pashler on the existence of a “cognitive bottleneck” in humans. This barbaric word means that, at a certain point, the information we receive piles up and is no longer treated equally. So the latency time between processing each piece of information becomes longer. This is why most people who think they are multitasking are actually juggling several tasks. And the time required to switch from one task to another is enormous.

But then, do multitasking even exist? In a 2014 New Yorker article, attention specialist David Strayer (and contributor to the US study cited above) said that about 2.7% of the population would have the ability to do several things at once without it affecting their performance. He estimated that the ability to supertask in the population is distributed in the same way as IQ: most of us are in the middle, but a tiny fraction of the population is in the highest range.

Surprisingly, while one might think that the cognitive processing and attention part of the brain is under extreme stress from these multitaskers, MRI scans have shown low activity in the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for attention) when performing multiple tasks simultaneously. In fact, in some ways, the brains of “real” multitaskers manage to remain calm, which makes them perform well. Some researchers also believe that a rather recent evolutionary change in the brain of hominids may promote this ability of humans to multitask.

For the moment at least, the brains of the vast majority of us are not made for multitasking. Worse, going from one task to another or doing several at the same time could even make us stupid! A British study claims that using several electronic objects at the same time is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep or smoking a joint .

How to stop giving in to the advances of multitasking?

There’s every reason to believe that you’re never as efficient as when you’re working in monotask mode. But then, how can we stop falling through the cracks and free ourselves from multitasking? We offer a series of tips to help you avoid constantly spreading yourself too thin. Staying focused takes effort when you’re surrounded by flashing screens.

If you are a student and you feel like you have a lot of things on your plate, it might be a good idea to get a tutor in the beginning to teach you how to structure your tasks instead of multitasking.

1. Make sure you have some disconnecting moments in your day

You organise yourself as if you had the ability to multitask, but you’re constantly interrupted: phone calls, emails, breaking news, social network alerts, instant messaging notifications… All these distractions occur at any time and anywhere since the widespread use of smartphones. The best thing to do is to stay away from the screens, which, even when turned off, attract us, according to a study published in 2017.

Are you reading a complicated book? Put away your laptop, put your phone in airplane mode, hide it, and even, for the most reckless, turn off the wi-fi. Not being reachable for a few hours should not have too many consequences. Organise your time by deciding when to surf the Internet or answer your messages. For example, offer yourself these moments at specific times during the day (at the very beginning of the day, when you return from lunch break, in the early afternoon…). This will give your brains the peace it needs to focus and not multitask.

2. Arrange your workspace

Minimalism is in fashion, and some contemporary computer geniuses have put a lot of emphasis on the virtues of decluttering. It is worth noting that the way our workspace is arranged has the ability to influence our state of mind and productivity. Do you feel like your head is underwater? Neutralize anything that might be disturbing you.

Try to remove from your desk all objects that distract your attention: an open notebook, a snack, a mobile phone. A clean desk can greatly help you focus effectively on one task at a time. Even if you’re one of those people who appreciate clutter, surrounding yourself with only the bare essentials will keep you focused on the task at hand.

3. Make a to-do list

It has psychological benefits! Putting all the things to be done on paper and then crossing them off gradually gives a lot of satisfaction. By providing structure, reducing anxiety and creating a sense of accomplishment, to-do lists are faithful allies, as psychologists have found. One American study even suggests that not writing down goals would make you more distracted. However, avoid writing down unrealistic things, such as “writing a script” and split the task into several steps.

4. Use a timer

In the 1980s, an Italian researcher established a simple method based on the idea that regular breaks promote mental agility. The Pomodoro method involves taking five minutes off every 25 minutes of work. Set a timer for this period of time or download an application like Flat Tomato to manage work and break times, and work on a single task until the alarm sounds.

5. Do exercises to stay focused

To avoid moving from one task to another without even finishing the first one, you can, for example, practice focusing your attention by staring at an object and scrutinizing it in detail for several minutes. Or you can picture a landscape, recall a memory, or paint a portrait of someone close to you in your head as accurately as possible. Or write down your dreams. If you’re a numbers person, do some mental math.

6. Take time to focus on the present

Wash dishes diligently, walk slowly, eat a half-hour breakfast and use all five senses. Focus on the taste of your coffee or the warm sensation in the shower. Being receptive to sensations, such as the sun on your skin, trains the mind to be more aware of the present moment.

7. Breathe with your belly and clear your head

If you tend to multitask, it’s because you have trouble concentrating. Meditation or at least the use of breathing exercises is also a quick and easy way to improve your mental performance. Gathering together” reduces distracting thoughts. According to a recent study, ten minutes of meditation a day is more effective. Other neuroscience research, published in the journal Psychophysiology, directly links breathing techniques in yoga or meditation to the release of the concentration hormone norepinephrine.

Final remarks

If you’ve read this article all the way through without stopping to open a new tab, answer a text message or a question from a colleague, then you’re on the right track! Otherwise, it’s okay, just start reading again from the beginning 😉

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