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Multitasking is for many a status symbol, a demonstration of their importance. Or is it? We took a closer look at multitasking, and here is what we found: Almost everyone is wrong about almost everything involving multitasking.

Most people think they’re good at multitasking. Before you read this article, click here for a one-minute quiz.

Multitasking is actually a misnomer.

According to experts, when we think we are multitasking, we are actually task switching. We don’t do things all simultaneously – we bounce back and forth between them. When we switch from reading to answering our phone to writing a memo to watching a video, we think we are doing them all at once, but we’re not. There is only 100% of our attention to go around. The more things we try to do, the less attention each gets. Think about texting while driving a car.

How about heavy task switchers versus light task switchers?

Surely the more we do it, the better we get at it. But no. Research shows heavy task switchers are even less competent. As an unintended consequence, the more we task switch, the worse we become at it.

Sometimes we actually do several things at once. That’s focus-splitting.

Focus-splitting is not multi-tasking. It is a state in which our attention is on a primary task, while we simultaneously scan for other activities or opportunities. We are continually diverted from what we set out to do by something that catches our eye. Nothing has our undiluted attention. We become like magpies, birds that collect flashy things indiscriminately. We spend so much of our energy reacting to stimuli and making quick decisions that we have fewer mental resources left for comprehension and retention.

Forbes’ Douglas Merrill says our brains simply cannot process two separate streams and code them into short-term memory. And when it doesn’t get into short term memory, it can’t be coded into long-term memory, and is lost.

How task switching affects us.

  • Task switching doubles the number of mistakes we make.
  • The more we task switch, the less efficient we are, producing inferior results while wasting time and energy.
  • Every time we task switch our productivity drops drastically. Studies show we are up to 40% less effective, which scientists say is worse than losing a night’s sleep or being stoned.

And in case you think there are only short-term effects, Psychologist JoAnn Deak says that trying to do too many things at once causes our brains to lose the capacity for deep thinking altogether. And this leads to skimming, which further cripples our ability to concentrate.

In the long term, the net result of task switching and focus-splitting is an inability to filter the relevant from the irrelevant.

Which makes it all the more interesting when we find that more than 25,000 online jobs list multitasking as a job qualification. This makes us wonder what they’re smoking.

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