Why multitasking is bad

Full Brain Stop Multi-tasking start doing

A Full Mind?

Your mind can’t actually fill up. But it often feels that way when you’re too busy with too many projects on the go. How can you get all that stuff done but also avoid the brain-over-flowing feeling?


Tim Hartford recently wrote an excellent article in the FT about the false-friend of multitasking.

Despite what we might think multi-tasking isn’t a superpower, and is instead something to be approached very carefully. While some studies suggest that you’re more creative when you multitask, the cost of frequent task-switching is feeling overwhelmed at the multitude of tasks at hand.

With modern technologies and the benefit (and curse) of smartphones, it seems that we can do so much more every day. And so we try to.

But the problem is that we perform better when we take on one task at a time. But how to do this when so much is expected of us?

You can attack the problem from two ends: take on fewer tasks to begin with and more effectively complete those that you commit to. So the answer is to 1) Don’t do so much, and 2) Focus more completely on those that you take responsibility for.

1) Taking on Tasks: Opening Loops

When you take on a task you open a loop. This plays on your mind: you must complete the quest! A study from the 1920s showed that abandoning a task is hard once you’ve committed.

This is the premise of the Zeigarnik effect.

an unsatisfied quasi-need probably does influence even purely memorial retention. – On Finished and Unfinished Tasks, Bluma Zeigarnik

Once you commit to a ‘quasi-need’ – a task – your mind focuses and strives to complete it, and can even improve memory performance in order to do so.

The Good:


On the one hand this is fantastic news; to improve your chances of getting something done all you have to do is start it. In effect you’ve created a new obsession that your mind now wants to complete.

You can notice the effect when you play a game: ‘I’ll complete one more level!’ The same is true of any task when it can be broken down into manageable chunks. You keep going because your mind is in some way committed.

The Bad:

But on the other hand if you get started on too many tasks you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. There’s too much to think about: The brain might not fill up, but it only has so much bandwidth.

multitasking can make us forgetful — one more way in which multitaskers are a little bit like drunks. – Tim Hartford

So a solution is to avoid doing too much at once. Start the task, and then give it your full attention.

Another solution is not to open so many loops. i.e. stay focused on the things that matter by only taking responsibility for the tasks that help you reach your goals. (You do have goals that you’re working towards, right?!)

Write Stuff Down To Keep Head Space Free


David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a must read.

His strategy is to write down tasks, which means that in effect you out-source your memory to a list. Your thoughts are out of your head – more bandwidth is available! I’m an avid list-maker and there’s no doubt it helps clarity.

It should be stressed that it’s absolutely vital to make sure you actually do something with the list, otherwise you’ll just be surrounded by pretty lists.

When your mind trusts your list-making system, it can relax. Tasks aren’t lost and don’t have to be kept in your working memory.

2) Focus – Get Tasks Completed:

Here are two simple but very effective ways to get more done.

Use Pomodoros.

Pomodoros are 25 minute chunks of work. Commit to working on just one task for this time, take a 5 minute break, and then repeat. It’s a manageable goal that you can easily commit to throughout the working day. I often use a kitchen timer to countdown my Pomodoros.

If you want, make a tally and track how many you do each day. Then completing Pomodoros becomes a habit you can work on: What is the average number of Pomodoros you complete each day?

Use Self-Control to block the internet.

Blocking the web isn’t just for internet addicts, it’s a simple way to avoid distraction. The principal is to remove the ability to get drawn away from your task. Decision-fatigue is a real – so make only one decision to enable Self-Control, rather than make multi-decisions per working day to not check Facebook!

Then you can complete the task at hand without distraction; you have no choice, those cat pictures are blocked.

Final Thoughts – What Can You Takeaway From This Post?

  • Write tasks down – use a system you trust to declutter your mind
  • Start – your mind will want to finish
  • But be selective – is candy crush, or a new TV series really something you want your mind to obsess over?
  • Focus – avoid task switching


On Finished and Unfinished Tasks – Bluma Zeigarnik

The Zeigarnik Effect and Quest Logs: Why we’re obsessed with incomplete quests

How to Beat Procrastination: Harness the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect: the scientific key to better work

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century

Can Your Brain Really Be “Full”?

How Multitasking Boosts Creativity

How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking

Drowning in Jam: How to conquer “decision fatigue.”

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