Have you ever tried to mulltitask to get through your busy schedule? We definitely have.

But are you really multitasking? Or is it a myth?


Louis: Where does the term multitasking come from?

miamo: I am not sure but think it originates from the computer industry. It describes how microprocessors seem to be able to process several tasks simultaneously. But it only seems like it, as a single core processor too can only process one task at the same time. It does so very fast though. Hence it seems to be simultaneous. One would need multi-core processors or multi brains to achieve multitasking.


Louise: It seems that for many people the only way to cope with today’s task and information overload is to multitask. Can people really multitask?

miamo: The short answer is no. Our brains cannot perform two or more tasks that require high level brain function at once. We cannot pay attention to more than one brain consuming stimulus at the same time. So, multitasking is a myth.


Louis: But people claim they can watch television, send eMails, tweet, talk with others at the same time. Experienced drivers can drive and talk with a passenger at the same time.

miamo: Yes, we can also walk while we speak into our mobile phones. We can eat while reading a book etc. Tasks that have been automated don’t require the brain’s focus. They run in the background. We don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other when we walk while we talk on the phone. This is not multitasking. When having to do tasks that need the brain’s attention we can only do one at a time. The moment traffic needs your full attention to avoid a crash, you won’t be able to still focus on your phone call or talk with a passenger.

What in fact happens when people try to multitask eg write a blog, react to news on facebook, answer a call etc. is switching tasks. Switching tasks though comes at a price.


Louis: Why is that?

miamo: Some research has shown that multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%. Whether it is less or even more, I don’t know. However, fact is that the brain can learn to switch tasks faster but the more this is required the less time is left to each task. We all know what happens if there is insufficient time to concentrate on a job. Most people will be familiar to the following situation: Writing an eMail on the computer while talking to your mother over the phone. The result is either a) an eMail that needs to be written again or b) the question “Are you really with me? You seem distracted.”

So, our brains can react to stimuli (incoming eMail, phone calls, music etc. and switch focus. But these stimuli are actually distractions keeping the brain from working efficiently. At the end the quality of our work deteriorates. We do more but we do not do it well and we need more time for it. Multitasking leads to less concentration, more mistakes which then need to be corrected and unnecessary, unhealthy additional stress.


Louis: So multitasking then is rather counterproductive?

miamo: Absolutely. It makes no sense to make people work like computers. By doing so we lose those abilities that distinguish us from them: creativity, spontaneity and flexibility. We are just reacting to stimuli when we are no longer in the driving seat. That takes us back to a form of Taylorism of the early days of mass production. Just that this time it is the digital version.

Let me summarize: Our brains cannot focus on two or more things at the same time. Hence real multitasking is impossible. It is a myth. We are only able to quickly switch from task to task. But by doing so we act counterproductive. People are rushed by endless tasks and an information overload. Without time to separate important from unimportant stimuli people are diligent, stressed and eventually out of touch with themselves.

Mindfulness could be part of the solution.