The Multitasking Myth: ‘We Cannot Do Two Challenging Things At Once’

“We cannot actually multitask,” says Alison Matthey, founder and president of Dynamic Leadership Group. “If you say you’re good at multitasking, erase that from your resume. You are not good at it because nobody is good at it. It’s a myth.’


It’s not really anyone’s goal to be good at multitasking, according to Alison Matthey, founder and president of Dynamic Leadership Group, a business skills training firm in Laguna Beach, Calif.

“We cannot actually multitask,” said Matthey. “If you say you’re good at multitasking, erase that from your resume. You are not good at it because nobody is good at it. It’s a myth. We cannot do two challenging things at once.”

Matthey spoke at CRN parent The Channel Company’s Women of the Channel conference in Carlsbad, Calif., last week to an audience of more than 400 women about task switching and how multitasking is actually a myth and counterproductive.

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As women, our roles are so great,” she said. “They encompass taking care of children, maybe taking care of aging parents, running a company … we’re doing a lot of things.”

Through her firm, she consults companies about what’s happening in their cultures and how they can help drive results through their people and leadership.

“What I’m hearing is, ‘We don’t have enough people. How are we able to do all of this … more with less?’” she said.

She said when trying to perform two tasks at once, people are not as effective and have to work harder. The only times people are good at multitasking is when they use two different parts of the brain, she said.

“When you really talk about two challenging things, our brains just shift from task to task, so the costs of that are great,” she said. “It really does drain our energy.”

She said what individuals can do is combine activities that require different parts of the brain, like driving and listening to a podcast as it’s working the mental side and the physical side.

Matthey outlines the ways in which multitasking is hindering productivity and how to prioritize tasks to be more efficient.

The Costs Of Multitasking

The costs of multitasking include draining one’s energy, eating more, consuming more caffeine, stress build-up, lowering IQ by 15 points and impacting emotional intelligence, according to Matthey.

“In the virtual world we do this a lot more, and then we miss more,” she said. “Then it lowers our ability to be able to make good choices or to be able to follow up on what we talked about in the meeting.”

There are various ways to help reduce multitasking, according to Matthey, including eliminating jobs that are not part of an individual’s role, scheduling the most challenging tasks for times of the day when the person feel most energized, minimizing the number task-switching times, and setting aside 25 minutes to two hours of time long-term projects.

Matthey said checking e-mails can give a random hit of reinforcement, and pop-up notifications interfere with focus. To help with this, she suggested to only check e-mails at certain times of the day, set reminders to take a break or task-switch and turn off pop-up notifications.

“Align ourselves to do physical things and mental things that enrich our day, not two challenging things, and take breaks every two hours,” she said.

How To Take A Break And Prioritize

When taking a break, one needs to take a break from the screen and not turn to social media, Matthey suggested. Going for a walk, getting outside, daydreaming or listening to soothing music can help, she added.

Energy drains when there is too often an attention switch, she said.

“Keep your desktop clear with what you’re working on, focusing on that,” she said.

She also suggested that individual’s only email during certain times of the day and set a reminder to get up and stretch every two hours.

“It really does make a difference,” she said.

Matthey also suggested keeping a time log to track tasks performed on a day-to-day basis, tracking activities, writing down the task and the time of day it was performed, noting the emotions and feelings when performing that task and then the value of that task.

“If it’s of low value it may be something to get rid of,” she said. “If it’s of medium or high value, what time of the day should we really be doing that knowing that our energy reserves are limited throughout the day?”

With that data, it will be easier to prioritize tasks throughout the day, she said.

Leaders Need To Help People Not Multitask

Task switching also has an impact on surrounding people, Matthey said.

“It’s that social awareness and emotional intelligence that we need to be paying attention to,” she said. “Multitasking impacts other people. It’s not a badge of honor in this case—we need to be attentive.”

Being attentive is key, she said, which includes making eye contact, putting all other distractions aside and leaning in.

“Focus is so important. Put everything down,” she said.

People should be an explorer and show engagement, Matthey added, which includes asking follow-up questions, showing interest and emphasizing that.

“When we emphasize, we are modeling to the person who’s talking to us that we have heard them,” she said. “This is our insurance policy that we are not multitasking, because you can’t. It’s to really get at the heart of somebody’s message, to empathize and hit the bull’s eye at what they’re trying to say.”

Doing this shows emotional intelligence and care, which Matthey said is important to drive in leadership positions.

“As leaders we need to help our people not multitask,” she said.