Steal Your Focus Back from the Multitasking Monster

Single-task medicine for multitasked minds

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Why is multitasking frowned upon? Dr. Vishton explains exactly why it’s so bad for the brain and offers solutions for regaining clarity.

Close up of a man's glasses with the computer screen reflection in glasses
The brain is structured to focus in detail on one thing at a time, not several bursts of multiple tasks quickly. Photo by Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock

Multitasking Problems

When we engage in multitasking, problems arise because of how our brain works. Our brain is not designed to switch between multiple tasks in a short period of time.

Whenever you engage in a task, you activate a network of different areas in the brain. A spoken language decision-making task, for example, requires you to activate auditory cortex areas along with Wernicke’s area for processing speech, temporal cortex memory areas responsible for holding onto different sentence concepts, and the frontal cortex regions involved in intentional decision-making.

If you’re also doing a task in which you’re visually searching for something, like a person’s face, you’ll activate occipital cortex visual regions, face recognition areas in the right hemisphere, memory regions to consider where you’ve looked, and frontal cortex attention allocation regions to guide those eye movements.

Some of these areas are unique to one task or another, but other areas are inherently involved in both tasks. As you repeatedly switch between these two tasks, you rapidly ask these overlapping circuits to do two different things for brief periods. 

That alternation produces interference, like rapidly switching the gears of your car between drive and reverse. It works—the car moves forward when you put it in drive and backward when you put it in reverse—but it doesn’t have the time it would need to build up efficient speed in either direction.

Multitasking presents problems, then, because your brain doesn’t work as well. It will be more fatigued at the end of a workday, which contributes to that sense that you’ve accomplished a lot, but the information processing that it will have accomplished will be of a distinctly lower quality.

Can You Be an Expert Multitasker?

One line of research investigated if people who were experienced multitaskers might be better at it than those who don’t regularly engage in the practice. Perhaps, the researchers thought, multitaskers deal with these brain challenges by getting better at task-relevant strategies. 

Specifically, maybe experienced multitaskers are better at focusing their attention on the key pieces of information that are most important for each task, and, conversely, filtering out irrelevant information. The results of these studies demonstrated exactly the opposite. When you’re multitasking, you are generally more distractible.

Any work environment contains potential distractors—people walking by in the hallway, the low hum of the lighting fixtures, the periodic fan noise when the ventilation system kicks on. We all learn to filter these distractions out and keep our mind focused on the current task. 

After a lot of multitasking, however, our ability to do this is negatively impacted. Your attention will be more readily drawn to those small, irrelevant noises and movements. If you multitask on a regular basis, just keeping your attention on any one task becomes more difficult, not less.

Solutions for Efficiency

There are a number of solutions to this challenge, but they all revolve around the same thing. You should practice doing one thing at a time, or monotasking. 

Think through the things you want to do and pick one. Then, to the best of your ability, try to block out everything else before you begin working on it.

This sounds simple, but it can feel very uncomfortable the first few times you try it. Turn off your email program and phone ringer. Many phones now provide an option to block all but the most critical numbers. 

Shut the door. Maybe hang a “Please Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.

It might make sense to tell your colleagues what you’re going to try. If there’s a particular group of people who are likely to call or knock on your door, explain that you’re going to try to focus on one particular, important task for some big chunk of time. 

If you are needed, but it can wait for 30 minutes or so, request that they send you an email. You can set up your email to automatically reply with information about your schedule: “I plan to address incoming messages each day between 9 am and 10 am and then again from 4 pm to 5 pm. If this is urgent, please call.”

You’ll need to adapt this plan to your situation, but almost everyone can arrange for at least some monotasking time each day. After you do it for a while, you’ll likely notice two things. 

First, you’ll get a lot more done than you would have otherwise. Second, your work will be of a better quality. You will, according to a range of evidence, be more creative, efficient, and smarter than you would be if you were engaged in that typical task-switching activity.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.