The Toxic Impact of Multitasking


My Multitasking Mistake

On a recent work task, I completed what I thought fell precisely in line with my directives. Instead, what I thought I needed to do was completely wrong. Not even close, actually. The mistake devastated me and threatened to send me into a dark, self-deprecating pit.

After the emotions wore off and I quit trying to blame someone else, I thought about my mistake and what led to it. Essentially, I performed a mental root cause analysis. I first tried to credit the error to the general excuse of miscommunication but realized that just lets everyone involved off the hook and doesn’t help much. So, in all honesty, I admitted that the cause of the mistake fell solely on myself, more specifically, on my attempt to multitask.

Instead of putting my full attention into a planning meeting, I got distracted by other tasks. The worst part? Well, there are two worst parts, actually. First, I wrote down the correct task needing completed. I just didn’t look at my notes because I failed to even remember I took them. Second, I thought this type of mistake existed only as a habit broken long ago. Clearly not.

The mistake serves as a reminder about the importance of maintaining focus, which impacts reality in significant ways.


Focus Determines Reality

Not only does what you focus on determine the direction you take, but how many tasks you focus on does too. Focusing on multiple tasks at once divides and weakens your attention and productivity. It diminishes the quality of your efforts and slows overall progress.

Multitasking — originally a computer term — is technically impossible for humans. Our brains actually task flip, but it happens so quickly we can’t tell the difference. Computers can process several tasks at once. Humans cannot. Instead, as Jon Hamilton on NPR Morning Addition explains:

“Even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain if we try to do them all at once.”

“We frequently overestimate our ability to handle multiple tasks.”

I thought I’d beaten this bad habit of multitasking that contributed to my overwhelm and overload so many years ago and created the mediocre quality that eventually crept into every area of my life. And while it’s not fully returned, this backslide served to remind me of habits I need to refresh and reestablish if I am to maintain a right focus that in turn establishes the reality I desire for my life.


The Mental Impact of Multitasking

In Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter, Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., calls multitasking toxic because it drains the brain, zaps cognitive resources and promotes early mental decline. Multitasking also decreases sharpness and increases cortisol, which can damage the memory center of the brain.

And those are just the long-term consequences. In the short term, multitasking overloads the brain, makes you less efficient, keeps thoughts at surface level and causes mistakes to occur more frequently.

Honestly, before experiencing the difference between a life filled with multitasking and one more oriented toward single-tasking, I did not buy into what Chapman asserts. Now, I realize the truth in how multitasking consumes a person’s mental resources to the point of almost complete ineffectiveness.

What toxic evidence of multitasking do you see in your life?

Next week we’ll explore the benefits of single-tasking and look at some basic habits to help get there.

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8 Replies to “The Toxic Impact of Multitasking”

  1. All great points here! I'm learning how to focus on only one task at a time. It's challenging but the better results are great.

  2. I make the mistake of thinking I am not multitasking because I am just working on one specific project but I often try to multitask within a project and end up making mistakes. It helps to lay out on paper what needs to be done on a project and then working them one by one and if I am stuck on finishing one I need to make a note of why I stop on it and move to another task in the project.

    1. Multitasking really can get into the details of our individual projects too, Mark. Great point! Planning and being organized definitely helps counteract it. So does making notes. Great tips! Thanks!!

  3. I always thought I did multi-tasking well, till my own children reminding me they were the ones missing out…ouch. It is one small step at at time of course that makes each thing one does count. Jesus never multi-task and He was concern for the whole world. Good reminders Kari.

    1. Some of the toughest lessons I've learned have come through reminders from my children. Humbling for sure. Small steps toward progress are so important. We didn't get into any situation by one leap usually, so it won't be a leap out either. We definitely need to work toward following Jesus' example more and more in our lives. Thanks, Betty!

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