Multitasking vs Task Switching

Perceived knowledge, aka ‘Old Wife’s Tales’, have supported some of the craziest beliefs and practices over the years. Luckily psychologists are gaining ground by empirically proving and disproving some of these axioms. For instance, that the ability to multitask is gender specific.


You may have heard that multitasking is bad for you and increases stress while negatively affecting quality and performance. But did you know that it may even damage your brain. Every time you multitask you aren't just performing under par in the moment; you may very well be damaging an area of your brain that's critical to your future success at work.


Recent research conducted at Stanford University revealed that multitasking is somewhere like 40% less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.


































Ah! you say, but what if some people have a special gift for multitasking? Again, the Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.


Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your conscious brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

According to the American Psychological Association’s overview of multitasking research, there are three types of multitasking (1) - 

1)    Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.

2)    Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.

3)    Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently.

To be clear, none of these is necessarily worse than the others; all three reduce our effectiveness and result in mental fatigue. Be on guard for all three types of multitasking so you can regain control of your focus.


It’s estimated that only 2% of the population is actually proficient at multitasking, and ironically, these people are the least likely to actually multitask. The problem is that we all think we’re part of that 2%, and use our perceived ability as justification to juggle too many tasks. In fact, recent research indicates that people who multitask the most often are likely the worst at it.(2) 


David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward and Jason Watson of the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology dive deep into this problem in their study on multitasking:


“Perceptions of the ability to multi-task were found to be badly inflated; in fact, the majority of participants judged themselves to be above average in the ability to multi-task. These estimations had little grounding in reality as perceived multi-tasking ability was not significantly correlated with actual multi-tasking ability.”

Don’t assume that you’re part of the 2% can multitask, and focus on excelling at one task at a time.


Worse still - it was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex  compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.


While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it's clear that multitasking has negative effects.


In facilities and estates management a straightforward way to cut down on the number of things that need doing simultaneously is to delegate some of the tasks to technology. Why are you performing so many of the tasks that could be delegated to your customers to securely serve themselves?




ARCHIBUS delivers a system that is eminently configurable to deliver self-service to your users over the internet on the device of their preference PC, smartphone, tablet … to start a conversation with Mass as to how we can help free up your time to focus on the tasks that make the best use of your time, call us on: 0118 977 8560 or email us at:




You may want to follow up in more detail about the problems of multi-tasking here:

1. American Psychological Association: Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013) Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402

2. Rubinstein, Joshua; Meyer, David, E.; and Evans, Jeffrey E. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4, 763-797.

3.  Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0,


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