Your Scientific Guide to Multitasking


Multitasking doesn’t work.Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to give your attention to several tasks at once, you take longer to get them done and make more mistakes.

However, sometimes it’s okay to multitask — the pros outweigh the cons.

In this podcast, you’ll learn how to avoid multitasking, how to decide when it’s appropriate to multitask, and how to use the most scientifically supported ways to minimize the negative effects of multitasking.

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### Transcript

**Armi Legge:** Multitasking doesn’t work. At least it doesn’t work the way most people think it does.

As you learned in the last podcast, your brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Your brain can switch between tasks quickly, but when it does, you take longer to complete the tasks and you make more mistakes. However, sometimes it does make sense to multitask. Whether you’re in a situation where you should be multitasking or not, you should try to limit the damage by using the best available research to guide your actions.

In this podcast, you will learn how to avoid multitasking, how to decide when it’s appropriate to multitask, and how to use the most scientifically supported ways to minimize the negative effects of multitasking.

My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve learned about a new project that I’m working on called Chef Labz, which helps you how to learn how to cook for yourself and others while hitting your calories and macronutrients.

To help improve the quality of the recipes and help you learn better, you have the opportunity to be part of the Chef Labz research team, a group of people who get early access to the recipes that will be published on Chef Labz. You get to test the recipes, offer feedback, help develop new recipes, and help me decide which recipes to focus on first.

You don’t need any professional cooking credentials. You don’t need to take a class. You don’t even have to be very good at cooking. You do need to enjoy cooking and be willing to experiment and learn.

However, there are a few criteria that you need to meet to join the team. To learn what they are, whether or not you meet these criteria, and how to apply to be part of the Chef Labz research team, go to

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Before we get started, let’s quickly review what we talked about in the last podcast.

Your brain can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time. When you switch between tasks, you lose time and productivity due to switching costs and mixing costs. The former is basically the time it takes you to find where you left off. The latter is the time and productivity you lose because you can’t stop thinking about the previous task, yet you also can’t fully focus on your current task.

When you work on a task long enough, you develop what researchers call “task-set inertia,” which is a fancy way of saying you get really productive when you focus on something for a long period of time.

When you break this mental inertia, refocusing and switching tasks becomes even harder. On the other hand, if you focus on unitasking, or working on one thing at a time, you complete tasks faster with fewer mistakes and less anxiety. Personally, I like to call this “monotasking,” since that sounds more parallel with multitasking, but you can call it whatever you want.

Focusing on one thing at a time is a better way to work in most cases. That’s the important thing.

There are five main factors that determine how much time and productivity you lose to multitasking.

1. How familiar you are with the task

2. How challenging the task is to you

3. The environment in which you’re trying to complete the task

4. Your mental state while working on the task

5. Whether or not you have visual or sensory cues to help you switch between tasks

You will learn how to manipulate these variables to multitask better throughout this episode. Basically, if you want to do something well and quickly, you shouldn’t multitask.

Since that’s probably how you want to do just about everything, let’s look at how to avoid multitasking in the first place. “Prevention is the best cure,” as they say.

The best way to avoid multitasking is to prioritize.

You have multiple tasks that you think need to be completed and you want them all done now. You have no triage system in place. In these situations, in the back of your mind, you know that certain tasks usually need to be completed first. However, you still get so overwhelmed and stressed looking at your to-do list or just thinking about what you need to do that you can’t make a decision.

Researchers have actually shown that the more decisions you make, the more your willpower becomes depleted and the harder it becomes to make more decisions. This is true even about things you enjoy.

This is another major problem with multitasking that I didn’t cover in the last episode. It forces you to continually make decisions about what you’re going to work on. Every time you switch gears, you make a small decision and your willpower becomes more depleted. Then it becomes harder for you to make later decisions, especially about important or less pleasant tasks, which are often the ones you put off in the first place.

For more research on this information on willpower, I suggest reading the book called “Willpower” by Roy F. Baumeister, or reading his review paper in the references for this podcast. It’s a fascinating topic that I will be writing and podcasting about more soon.

Anyway, to avoid multitasking, you need to decide what tasks are most important and finish those before anything else. In fact, you need to pick one task and do it before anything and everything else. This can be extremely hard so here are six tips for how to choose what to work on first.

1) Keep a to-do list of all your tasks so you can review them in one place and pick out the most important ones.

I use an app called “Wunderlist” for this.

2) When looking over your tasks, ask yourself, “If I only get one of these things done today, which one should it be?” Or, in other words, “If I only get this one task done today, will I be happy?” Also ask yourself how relevant the task is to your long-term goals.

Let’s say you’re trying to decide whether or not you should update your facebook profile or answer an important phone call from your boss.

If your job is more important to you than letting your friends know what your cat ate for breakfast or how funny your text conversation was, you should call your boss first. If you check facebook, you probably won’t get off for an hour or two, at which time you’ll rationalize that you don’t have enough time to make the phone call. If you do make the phone call, you won’t be as focused and your boss will probably be able to tell.

3) Plan specific periods of time to focus on certain tasks.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to do, decide how long you’re going to work on it. This helps ensure that you don’t get stuck on one task for the entire day and end up feeling rushed for the other tasks.

Planning breaks into your schedule also gives you something to look forward to after you finish working.

4) Eliminate as many distractions as possible.

The more distractions you have around you, the more mistakes you make and the longer it takes you to get stuff done.

5) Decide what you are not going to do.

You probably have a few things you do every day that cost you the most productivity. Maybe it’s checking facebook, texting, or stopping to read a blog article. Pick the top three most common things you do to avoid working on your important tasks and put those on a not-to-do list.

6) Do tasks first that don’t encourage multitasking.

Make your life easier by starting your day with tasks that don’t encourage multitasking.

Checking email is probably the worst. You open up your email app, you start scanning through the message, and you end up clicking on the links, and most of them to web pages. Then you get lost in a web safari and realize an hour later that you should have been done checking email in 5 minutes.

Instead, do something you can focus on first. For me, it’s usually writing an article or creating a podcast or doing a workout. If it’s the end of the day when all my important tasks are done, then I let myself browse the internet.

However, even if you use all of these tricks, you still might need to multitask sometimes. Here is how to decide when that’s OK. There are six criteria for when it’s OK to multitask.

1) When the chances and costs of making a mistake are small.

Think about the example from earlier about facebook and calling your boss.

If you call your boss first, he or she will be happier that you returned their call sooner and you will have an important and possibly stressful task off your shoulders. If you check facebook first, you might not get to the call at all that day, and by that point you will probably be more mentally drained.

The only advantage of updating facebook first is you might have one or two more likes from friends, which still doesn’t help your job situation. In this case, the negatives of putting off your phone call to check facebook don’t outweigh the benefits.

Another example more relevant to me is washing the dishes while cooking.

I hate washing dishes, so often, I’ll wash the dishes while I’m cooking to make sure I don’t have to do it afterward. I’ll stir something for a second and then wash a bowl. I’ll pour some batter onto a pan and then wash a plate.

The risk of screwing up tomato sauce, as long as the heat is on low, is pretty small. The absolute worst possible scenario is that some of the food burns or I break a dish, neither of which has happened recently. In this case, the benefits outweigh the negatives for me.

2) When speed is more important than precision or quality.

Another example is cleaning and listening to music. I hate vacuuming, so to make it less miserable and take less time, I usually listen to music while I’m doing it. It’s hard to screw up vacuuming and if I miss a small spot because I was listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it usually doesn’t matter. In this case, the costs of making a mistake are so small that it’s OK to multitask.

I also multitask sometimes when I’m checking different social media channels. I might switch back and forth between twitter and facebook when I’m responding to questions or comments because if I make a typo, it’s not a huge deal. This also gives other people time to respond if I’m in a conversation.

In this case, speed is sometimes more important than precision, though I still usually spellcheck my messages because I’m a perfectionist and a little OCD. Even then, I still rarely do this kind of multitasking.

3) When you don’t care about getting better.

If you’re working on a task that you really don’t need to improve on, then it’s less harmful to multitask.

For instance, if you don’t care about improving your dish washing skills because they’re already adequate, then it’s less harmful to multitask. If you care about your athletic performance, your reading skills, or your career and you want to get better, those tasks demand your full attention.

4) When you’re completing many small, similar tasks.

Studies have shown that you lose less time and productivity when you multitask with projects that are fairly similar.

For instance, it’s much easier to switch between checking twitter and facebook than it is to switch between writing an article and messing around on facebook. One task, writing, requires near complete focus while the other, facebook, is basically the complete opposite.

5) When you have no other choice but to multitask.

Sometimes, you’re stuck in situations where you don’t have much of a choice about whether or not you multitask. If you’re in a traffic jam and you get an important text message that you’ve been waiting for that needs your immediate attention and there’s nowhere to pull over, you might need to respond. Even if you’re driving at a slow pace, that’s still technically multitasking.

This might not be a great example since you still probably shouldn’t text and drive at the same time but I do it sometimes and you probably do, too, because it’s important and you don’t feel like responding can wait.

6) When others are waiting for you.

When you have someone else waiting for your approval or feedback, sometimes it’s better to stop what you’re doing and respond.

Take the prescriptive of your boss. If you need your employee to get a report back to you before you can go ahead with a project that might influence the fate of the company, it makes sense to stop what you’re doing, get the report, and then move on.

For instance, Daniel and I are working on scheduling a meeting with Raaid, who’s our head of digital marketing to decide on some stuff for Impruver, the fitness app that we’ve built. Until we have this meeting, we’re forced to focus on other probably less important tasks.

In many cases, I’ll stop what I’m doing to respond to a message from Daniel so he can complete a modification to the app or make some other change because ignoring his message slows us both down, while multitasking only slows me down and just a little since I’m only doing it for a second.

If you are in a situation where it’s appropriate to multitask, here is how to do it more effectively. Here are 9 ways to minimize the negative effects of multitasking.

1) Only multitask with things that are not mentally or physically demanding.

If you’re working on an important project that requires your full attention, don’t try to do something else at the same time.

If you’re in the middle of a workout, don’t start reading an article. If you’re grading papers, writing an article, drawing a portrait, or working on anything else that’s really important, focus only on that.

It’s less detrimental to multitask on fairly menial and easy jobs like responding to emails. Washing dishes isn’t that demanding, so it’s probably fine to talk to someone while you’re doing them or cook at the same time.

When you repeat a task enough and develop what researchers call a high level of “accommodization.” You become much better at switching between tasks.

Driving and listening to music is a good example. You’ve probably driven a car and listened to music hundreds of times and by this point, your brain is much better at switching between these two activities.

To quote one study, this works for two reasons. One,”streamlining of neuronal communication, which improves performance on a single task” and two, “functional trimming of neuronal ensembles, which enhances the capacity to accommodate processing of additional tasks, potentially by facilitating a rapid switching of construction sets or contexts.”

Basically, you get better at performing the tasks and you get better at blocking out distractions and switching between tasks.

2) Batch similar tasks together and do them at once.

If the tasks you’re doing are more similar, it’s easier to switch back and forth between them.

For instance, straightening your room, vacuuming, and dusting are all related and not too different, so it’s not that big of a deal if you rotate between them while you’re cleaning. Checking email, facebook messages, and twitter messages is another good example since they’re all fairly similar.

3) Only pick two to three tasks to move between at a time and no more.

Multitasking still has limits. If you try to do too much at once, even if you’re following the previous guidelines about when it’s OK to multitask, you’re eventually going to reach a point where the benefits simply don’t outweigh the negatives. Pick two or three things that you’re going to do and only multitask with those chores.

This also helps prevent you from finding more and more tasks to start, which further dilutes your performance.

4) Multitask after working on more important monotask projects.

When you start multitasking, it’s very hard to go back to working on a single project. Your brain is just too scattered to focus and it’s impossible to give something your full attention.

This circles back to the issue of priorities. Do important things first and less important things later. In some cases, you can do these less important things while multitasking, but they should always come after the monotask projects that you’re working on.

5) Block out time that you’re going to multitask versus time that you want.

You need to set boundaries. It’s far too easy to let yourself find more and more things to do because you don’t have any defined start and end points. When you’re multitasking, you still need to decide roughly how long you’re going to work and what you want to accomplish.

Don’t work unless you have a specific goal or goals for what you want to get done. Otherwise, it’s just busy work and you might as well play video games or do something else. I hear Battlefield 4 is coming out soon, according to my brother.

6) Multitask in a non-distracting work environment. The more distractions there are in your environment, the longer you take to complete your tasks and the more mistakes you’ll make. This effect is much greater when you’re multitasking, so when you’re doing multiple projects at once, you need to block out as many distractions as possible.

Find a quiet place to work and don’t let other people interrupt you. Tell people you’re multitasking and ask them not to bother you. This applies to pets, too, since I just locked my cat out of the room to keep her from chewing on my feet while I record this podcast.

7) Multitask when you’re not nervous, anxious, or worried.

When you are stressed, you can’t switch between tasks as effectively. If you’re going to multitask, do it when you’re in a clear state of mind. If you’re anxious, it’s far more important that you focus on only one task.

Basically, your brain is already coping with enough stuff so don’t throw a bunch of other stuff at it in the form of multitasking.

8) Use visual or other sensory cues to help you switch tasks, if possible.

Try to include some kind of visual cue in your multitasking.

For instance, when I’m doing social media work, facebook has a little notification that lets me know when someone commented, like, or did just about anything on facebook so I know when I need to respond.

Here’s another example. Last week, I made waffles. While I was cooking the waffles, I also did the dishes. Multitasking. I could see steam coming out of the waffle maker, so I knew it was time to get ready to pull them out and put some more batter on the waffle iron. The steam acted like a visual cue to let me know I needed to switch tasks.

You can also set alarms and use other cues to help you switch between projects.

9) Don’t fool yourself.

You can’t multitask but you can switch between familiar tasks without too much loss of performance.

When you start telling yourself that you’re a great multitasker, then you’re in trouble. You will abuse multitasking and think you can do it all the time, which you can’t.

Do not abuse multitasking. You aren’t good at it but you can become less bad at it by using the other 8 strategies you just learned.

Before we finish up, I want to mention a few tools that I use to help avoid multitasking. I don’t get paid for promoting any of these and none of the links on my site to these services are affiliate links. I just find them really helpful.

1) Wunderlist.

This is a really simple to-do list that works on most computer systems and it’s a web app.

2) The time on my laptop.

Frankly, my productivity system is basically my to-do list and the clock. I usually just look at the time on the computer and estimate how long it should take me to get things on my to-do list finished.

3) Google Calendar, or iCal, which is the calendar application on Mac.

This helps me plan important meetings and block out times to work on specific tasks.

Your brain can’t multitask but it can switch between familiar tasks without making too many mistakes.

Multitasking will always slow you down and cause you to make more mistakes but sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

However, if you multitask, you need to do it in the right context and in the right way.

To summarize, here are the most scientifically supported tips for how to minimize the negative effects of multitasking:

1) Only multitask with things that are not mentally or physically demanding.

2) Batch similar tasks together and do them at once.
3) Pick two to three tasks to move between at a time and no more.

4) Multitask after working on more important monotask projects.

5) Block out time that you’re going to multitask versus time that you won’t.

6) Multitask in a non-distracting work environment.

7) Multitask when you’re not nervous, anxious, or worried.

8) If possible, use visual or other sensory cues to help you switch between tasks.

9) Don’t pretend you’re good at multitasking because you aren’t, and no one else is.

And that is the complete guide to how to multitask.

To find links to everything we talked about in today’s show, you can go to You can also find links to all of the studies mentioned in this podcast on the same page under “references.”

If you enjoyed this podcast, the best way to show your appreciation is to leave a positive review and ranking on iTunes. To do so, navigate to and you will be redirected to where you can leave your comments. You can also search Google for “Impruvism Radio” and find the same page.

Thank you for listening and I will see you next week.

### References

1. Baumeister RF, Gailliot M, DeWall CN, Oaten M. Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. J Pers. 2006;74(6):1773–1801. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00428.x.


3. Derakshan N, Smyth S, Eysenck MW. Effects of state anxiety on performance using a task-switching paradigm: an investigation of attentional control theory. Psychon Bull Rev. 2009;16(6):1112–1117. doi:10.3758/PBR.16.6.1112.

4. Braver TS, Reynolds JR, Donaldson DI. Neural mechanisms of transient and sustained cognitive control during task switching. Neuron. 2003;39(4):713–726. Available at:

5. Ramsey NF, Jansma JM, Jager G, Van Raalten T, Kahn RS. Neurophysiological factors in human information processing capacity. Brain. 2004;127(Pt 3):517–525. Available at:

6. Yeung N, Nystrom LE, Aronson JA, Cohen JD. Between-task competition and cognitive control in task switching. J Neurosci. 2006;26(5):1429–1438. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3109-05.2006.

7. Wylie G, Allport A. Task switching and the measurement of “switch costs”. Psychol Res. 2000;63(3-4):212–233.

8. Murray MM, De Santis L, Thut G, Wylie GR. The costs of crossing paths and switching tasks between audition and vision.Brain Cogn. 2009;69(1):47–55. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2008.05.004.

9. Eysenck MW, Derakshan N, Santos R, Calvo MG. Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion. 2007;7(2):336–353. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.7.2.336.

10. Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2001;27(4):763–797.

11. Wager TD, Jonides J, Smith EE. Individual differences in multiple types of shifting attention. Mem Cognit. 2006;34(8):1730–1743.

12. Arrington CM, Altmann EM, Carr TH. Tasks of a feather flock together: similarity effects in task switching. Mem Cognit. 2003;31(5):781–789.

13. Vandierendonck A, Liefooghe B, Verbruggen F. Task switching: interplay of reconfiguration and interference control.Psychol Bull. 2010;136(4):601–626. doi:10.1037/a0019791.

14. Kiesel A, Steinhauser M, Wendt M, et al. Control and interference in task switching–a review. Psychol Bull. 2010;136(5):849–874. doi:10.1037/a0019842.


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