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Myth of Multitasking

The Myth of Multitasking

For a long time, I believed in the myth of multitasking. I carried around my exhaustion proudly. Every chance I had, I waved it like a flag to show that I was doing many things, all at the same time. And our culture rewarded that. Friends called me a hero. It encouraged me to add another spinning plate. But gravity always wins, and so it all came crashing down. If only I knew then what science has shown us about what multitasking does to our brain.

The meaning of multitasking

First of all, to clarify what I mean by multitasking. Strictly speaking, talking to our kids while we drive is multitasking. Or cooking dinner and listening to music. These routine life activities are not the topic here. This is about entrepreneurs multitasking activities that grow and manage their business. For example, doing bookkeeping while listening to a marketing podcast. Or scanning email while listening to a pitch from a potential new supplier. Also, working with two monitors, so that financial reports and resumes from job candidates can be reviewed at the same time. As shown below, this multitasking doesn’t save time at all, and in fact may actually hurt the business in the long run.

Multitasking in Western culture

The myth of multitasking runs deep in Western culture. It may have its roots in the Protestant work ethic. Generations were raised hearing that “idle hands make for idle minds” or similar expressions. As a result, it’s a commonly accepted notion that it’s good to do multiple tasks concurrently is a good thing. There are blog posts and Reddit threads suggesting TV shows and movies to multitask to. Also, it shows up as the Supermom trope in movies and advertising. With multitasking normalized, we just push ourselves harder to get more done.

Multitasking and entrepreneurship

Meanwhile, multitasking and entrepreneurship go together like bread and butter, or cheese and wine. Also, coffee and doughnuts. You get the idea.

Obviously, you just can’t have one without the other, right? And this makes sense because being an entrepreneur is not one role. It’s all of them, simultaneously. This is true for all sizes and stages of a small business. Because even when there is a team of staff, the entrepreneur oversees them all.

Ultimately, the business owner is responsible for the strategic direction and ultimate success of the whole company. Therefore, the ability to juggle a number of projects, ideas, and decisions is important. After all, within any given hour, an entrepreneur may have to deal with a variety of tasks across all business functions. And being able to switch between marketing, operations, sales, and human resources is a skill that benefits all business owners. However, the problem comes when we try to do more than one thing at one time.

The science of multitasking

As shown above, our society values productivity and efficiency. Obviously, these are desirable goals for an entrepreneur. After all, saving time means saving money, which can make the difference between being profitable or not. Especially for new business owners. However, science says we have it all wrong. As a neuroscientist at MIT explained it, “people can’t do multitasking very well, and if they say they can, they are deluding themselves.” Here are 3 big reasons why multitasking is not effective.

1. Brain Overload

Basically, multitasking causes brain overload. Because it takes energy to switch from one task to another. Doing that again and again over the span of a workday tires the brain in the same way that repetitive movement can cause muscle strain. Scientists call it cognitive fatigue. Daniel J. Levitin did groundbreaking research on the topic of multitasking. He explains that prolonged multitasking leads to “a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.” 

2. Increased stress

Switching focus from one task to another causes our brain to release cortisol. This important hormone has a purpose. It’s designed to help us cope with stress. However, it’s meant for emergencies only. As in, a bear is chasing you, so here is a boost of energy to cope with it. Therefore, experiencing regular cortisol boosts is not good for the body. Humans simply were not designed for that. Over time, it has many negative effects, like insomnia, weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

3. Impaired learning

Lastly, multitasking impairs learning. Specifically, learning new information as part of a multitasking session will stunt the ability to remember it later. This is because studies show that the brain will send new data to the wrong part of the brain. Basically, if you are making dinner while also trying to learn new software, the new information will be sent to a file storage area in the brain that is harder to access later. This makes it more difficult to recall, which slows down the learning process. So when improving skills as an entrepreneur, give the material your full attention. This is an example of the myth of multitasking, because focusing on learning is more efficient for your brain to retain the new information.

Lessons for entrepreneurs

Overall, what can entrepreneurs learn from all this? First, look at how the myth of multitasking shows up in your life and business. Multitasking may be a habit so ingrained in your routine that you don’t even notice it anymore. So spend a week tracking your work activities. Be aware of the times when you are bouncing between windows and devices. Make note of when you are focused on one task. Use the results as a blueprint for how to make changes in how you work. This could be physical, like removing that extra screen from the desk. There are many ways to create more focus. And accountability is important, which is why I highly recommend Flow Club. Scheduling a block of time to work with intention and be with like-minded people is powerful. I often host sessions, so come join me in the Flow!

Further Reading

Networking Tips for Entrepreneurs
The loneliness of entrepreneurship
Business ethics and boundaries

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Rebecca Page-Chapman