The Sneaky Way Multitasking Makes You Less Productive


Hands up if you’re doing three things while you’re reading this. Don’t be shy – you know I can’t see you through the screen.

Here’s the hard truth: we think we are good multi-taskers. But we’re not.

In fact, neuroscience shows that we really don’t multitask, we simply switch back and forth between tasks, burning brain glucose and increasing cortisol each time. Studies have even shown that when we think we’re managing two tasks at once, we’re actually only focused on one, and totally blind to the other (as anyone who’s looked down to see a text and looked back up to realize they’re walking into a pole can attest).

But that’s not all. Multitasking also sucks up valuable time. When you shift from one task to read an email, for instance, it will take you 15 minutes to get back to your level of focus and doubles your rate of error. Bottom line is that you don’t have time to multitask.

“But what am I supposed to do?” you ask me, “Do you know how much I have on my plate?”

I get it. Really, I do.

I’m an ER doctor – a job where it is tempting to multitask. Except that research has shown us how bad each of those interruptions really are. Which is why the multitasking epidemic needs to stop.

This doesn’t mean that your productivity should take a dive. The next time you’re tempted to juggle three things simultaneously, try these hacks – that help me survive in the ER and daily life – instead.

Stay on the Single-Task Track

This is what I do in the ER and it’s my antidote to multitasking. Focus on one task at a time. Even if it’s just for one minute, finish the single task you’re working on before attacking the next – even if the next task will “just take 2 seconds.”

Have two urgent things? Jot down the other so you don’t forget and do it immediately after you finish the first task. In my mom-life, this means that instead of trying to play with my kids and fix dinner and dictate that work email at the same time, instead I play with the kids, then fix dinner, then reply. It may sound like this method takes more time, but the increased efficiency of single-task focus will more than make up for it.

Break the Device Habit

Do you pull out your smartphone any time you have a quiet moment – whether it’s glancing at email while the kids are playing or reading while you’re standing in line at the grocery store?

Try this: For the next week, when you have a few idle moments, whether that’s brushing your teeth, standing in line at the grocery store, or going to the bathroom, don’t pick up your phone. You’ll find that when you’re not so quick to grab distraction, you free-up brain space – and may even have a burst of a creative idea.

This no-phone rule should also be in effect at the dinner table and during family time. Studies show that just having the phone on the dinner table (even if it’s face down) led to less engaging conversation and connection, so make the dinner table a device-less time.

Be Present Now

Do you ever stop and think, “Where did this week go?” When every day feels like a rat race, we run through life rarely fully present in anything.

Since I’m not a monk and, by the law of numbers and probability, you probably are not either, we’re not going to miraculously just start to be fully present and mindful. Instead, we should try to start with very short moments of mindfulness like in the exercises below. Do these a few times a day, and over time you’ll start to notice that the constant brain-whirring has slowed just a little bit:

  • Inhale for four seconds. Hold it for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Hold it for four seconds. Repeat as necessary.
  • Identify a natural object (flower, tree, clouds). Set your phone timer for one minute if you have the time, otherwise, just take in a breath and observe for a moment. Look at the object as if it’s the first time you’re seeing it. If it’s a cloud, is it bright white? Grayish? Is it moving or still? Are its edges clear or fluffy and hazy? Can you smell the air around you? See how many things you can observe in that time.

Want more tips like these? Check out my newly released book, Mom Hacks! Mom Hacks takes the best scientific evidence to help all of us find our “I’ve GOT this” to take control of our health (and our family’s) once and for all – one hack at a time. It’s not just possible, it’s easy – you’ve got this!

Dr. Darria is a board-certified Harvard- and Yale-trained Emergency Physician, favorite expert on national TV shows including CNN, HLN, The Dr. Oz Show, and The Doctors, mom of two, and author of the book Mom Hacks (Hachette Book Group). Mom Hacks hit shelves on February 19, 2019 sharing 100+ super-charged solutions to help everyone take control of their health and find their “I’ve GOT this.”