Are You Doing Too Much? The Perils of Multitasking | By Steve Mitten MCC

Stressed Person at Desk

This article from Master Coach Steve Mitten looks at the perils of the relatively recent phenomenon of multitasking. The explosion of online tools, resources and apps that—even while they're extremely helpful—can also be draining and time-consuming as we try to do everything at once. This article is a helpful reminder—both for ourselves and to discuss with our clients.

It would make a pretty good plot for a Sci-Fi thriller. Aliens flood the world with cheap new technology that allows everyone to access unlimited information, stimulation and pleasant distraction. The information opium overloads people's ability to think, act and engage each other in conversation yet alone reproduce—and civilization grinds to a halt.

Well maybe it's not a great movie plot, but there is a growing body of evidence that our skyrocketing tendency towards multitasking is taking its toll. And I'm not simply talking about the folks that drive their cars into ditches while messaging on their smartphone. I am talking about the typical multitasking most of us do trying to cram more and more activities into a limited amount of time each and every day.

One definition of multitasking—messing up two things at once.

The impact this everyday type of multitasking is having on our performance is getting better understood by science. One 2005 study conducted at the University of London found, "Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers."

Other studies looking at brain activity have found that the concept of successfully multitasking is a bit of a myth.

Stressed woman with foldersWhat really happens when we multitask?

When we think we're multitasking we are actually shifting scarce mental resources from one part of the brain to another. While we might get away with this in menial tasks such as walking and chewing gum, for more complicated tasks it has its price.

A study of brain activity from the University of California in Irvine found that if someone is distracted while engaged in one complicated task, it can take a full 25 minutes to get back to the same level of attention.

Work from the University of Michigan has also shown that multitasking releases significant amounts of stress hormones that negatively impact our health and memory. Higher levels of stress have been shown to greatly reduce our social skills, intuition, creativity and overall sense of well being. The long-term impact this has on our relationships, our careers and our quality of life is just beginning to be understood.

What does this mean for you?

The bottom line is that while it might be impossible to live and work in the 21st century without multitasking, taken to extremes it can lead to a shallow, anxious, unproductive, unhealthy, impatient, lonely existence. You may think you're getting so much done, but there is pretty good evidence to indicate you are actually less productive, less effective, less healthy and certainly much less fun to be around.

So, what can we learn from this?

So I invite you to get very clear on what's most important to you, and allocate your time accordingly. And as relates to those key activities and key relationships that contribute the most to your success and happiness, establish a zero tolerance for distractions.

It's very useful to create structures that limit your likelihood of being distracted. For example some business owners and executives I know work from their home office several mornings a week to get some focused time on key productive activities. Others draw a line around when they turn off their smartphones and simply enjoy their private life.

Also, the better job you do managing your overall stress level, the easier you will find it to stay present and resist the mind's temptation to fly out of the moment to battle some future challenge.

It all comes down to better mind management. And if you take yours to the next level, it will pay big dividends.

If you liked this article on multitasking and being more focused, you may also like:

Image of young woman overworked and holding folders by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay
Steve Mitten Headshot

Contributing Author:

Steve Mitten B.ApSc., CPCC, MCC. Steve is a Master Certified Business & Executive Life Coach, and Past President of the ICF (International Coaching Federation). Please Note: Steve has now transitioned into retirement.

Learn more about Steve & see all their articles here >>

Image of Person Stressed at desk because of multitasking by kawephoto via Shutterstock


  1. Jeannette Koczela

    I love the phrase, "better mind management" to describe single-tasking. It's so much better for our brain, in addition to productivity. It seems like we got so used to multi-tasking, that it's hard to stop. Steve has given us more good reasons to, especially that 25 minutes we don't want to waste! Thanks for the info, Steve.


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