How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work)

In a world of multitasking and constant distractions
— from the ping of texts and emails to everyone
having to wear more hats at work than they used to
— time management is one of the biggest
challenges. We might feel like we’re doing more —
and, in a way, we are — but we’re actually getting
less done in the process. So, is it possible in this
day and age to streamline your work style, be more
productive and get back some time in your day to
focus on big picture stuff, strategy and
brainstorming, all of which will make you more
effective at your job?
Yes, says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert
and bestselling author of five books including Time
Management from the Inside Out. Dubbed the
“queen of putting people’s lives in order” by USA
Today, Morgenstern has made it her life’s mission
to help people get more out of everyday and find
focus in their lives, both at work and at home. This
month marks the launch of her new Circa Balanced
Life Planner, a paper-based system for the digital
age, designed to help people make good decisions
about where to spend their time. Sign me up!
Morgenstern spent some of her valuable time
talking to me about the email addiction
epidemic, why being pulled in a million different
directions and always being connected is bad for
the brain, and sharing some great advice for how to
manage your time more effectively this year.
JK: Why is multitasking ineffectual?
It has been scientifically demonstrated that the
brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch
between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times
longer to recognize new things so you’re not saving
time; multitasking actually costs time. You also
lose time because you often make mistakes. If
you’re multitasking and you send an email and
accidentally “reply all” and the person you were
talking about is on the email, it’s a big mistake. In
addition, studies have shown that we have a much
lower retention rate of what we learn when
multitasking, which means you could have to redo
the work or you may not do the next task well
because you forgot the information you learned.
Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these
days – they’re symptoms of this multitasking
epidemic. Then, of course, there’s the rudeness
factor, which doesn’t help develop strong
relationships with others.
JK: Have distractions multiplied in recent
years and, if so, how?
One is obviously the smartphone, which has made
it so that you cannot get away. There are no safe
zones where you can actually unplug. You feel like
you’re busy and doing something – it’s a chemical
addiction. There are so many things we can do
through our screens now – stay in touch with
friends, do business, entertainment, watch Netflix,
do research, create a Pinterest board. The volume
of tasks in our lives that we can now do through a
screen rather than tactilely has increased
exponentially. It’s more than just email. It’s all the
things we can do on screens.
JK: Why is it so important to minimize
interruptions and distractions in today’s
It’s important to use all parts of your brain instead
of only one. That will help reduce mistakes and
increase the satisfaction of engagement. The
human being desires a sense of control and
fulfillment and I’m seeing a swing. People of all
ages are reaching a tipping point and need a
”screen break.” There’s comfort in the fact that the
human spirit is saying “this is simply too much.”
JK: What are three ways in which people can
work smarter?
1) Build “screen breaks” into your schedule, both
at work and at home. The length should be a min of
1-3 hours at a time so you can engage in a deeper
and different way on problems, studying, writing,
thinking, talking, etc.
2) Avoid email and all screens for the first and
last hour of the day so that you wake up and
engage in a deeper, more focused activity of some
sort. It’s easier to start deep and come up to the
shallow. And at night, sleep studies show that being
in front of a computer screen is an energy source
and it stimulates rather than relaxes.
3) If you schedule your day between meetings
and action to-do’s, plan every day plus tomorrow
and the next day, it makes it easier not to get
distracted. It’s best to keep track of everything in a
single system – from meetings to to-do’s, both
personal and professional – which will help you
focus and prioritize. If you plan what to do and
review it the night before, you’re less likely to get
sucked into mindless distractions. The more
specific you are, the more likely you are to combat
distractions. Knock out the big things and the
toughest stuff early in the day so you have the rest
of the day to catch up with the buzz, the urgency,
the distractions and the little stuff. Take advantage
of the morning to complete the tasks that require
more energy and discipline. If you divide your day
in half, that works for most people.
JK: If people are daunted by adding several
new rules to their lives (like trying to
accomplish too many New Year’s resolutions
and then giving up on all of them), what’s the
one thing that is either most important or
easiest to do?
The number one most powerful thing you can do to
rediscover the power of focus is to control email
use – scheduling when and how often you check
your email. If you promise yourself that you’re
going to check email only four times a day,
between 9am-6pm, that will really help.
JK: How do you advise that people “addicted”
to email and social media break the habit of
always checking their mobile devices?
All of these distractions are mindless, so you might
want to give yourself a little mantra or phrase that
gets them to refocus or resist distractions. One idea
is “Leave it!” — which is a dog-training term — or
ask yourself, “Is this the best time to do this?” You
can ask yourself or stop yourself when you feel the
pull of a distraction. Also, when you’re having a
screen break, don’t have the device nearby. When
you’re supposed to be working on a report, turn off
the dinger on your email or put the device away
altogether. Track this for a month and see how well
you’re doing at taking screen breaks and
accomplishing bigger tasks. Assess each day how
you did at it. You could even create an alarm every
two hours to check your email.
Often, people try to change their habits, and they
can’t get through a day without constantly checking
email, so they give up. They didn’t realize how
addicted they were. People who succeed give it a
few days of discomfort, like a drug withdrawal, and
then they can get through it. Sometimes people
stay on track until a crisis and then they forget to
go back. Overall, if you can make sure to give
yourself time away from your “screens,” you will
be more productive and fulfilled


13 thoughts on “How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work)

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