The Myth of Multitasking

February 08, 2022
Engagement & Retention
Organization Development
Read time: 2 mins

Does this sound familiar? You are on a deadline for writing an important communication to employees. After staring at your computer screen for 20 minutes, the perfect sentence with perfect content and tone, not too heavy or too light, and that readily speaks to all audiences, comes to you. Before you can finish putting the thought to writing, your phone rings--it’s your boss. She has a question requiring you to switch gears and provide information completely unrelated to what you’ve been working on. Fifteen minutes later you return to your memo, only to realize that your glorious sentence has completely left your brain and is lost forever. Arghhhh!

We have all likely experienced this, or a similar scenario, and questioned our ability to multitask--something we were led to believe we should be able to do with ease. Multitasking seems like a great way to get more done, but recent research has shown that our brains are not as good at juggling multiple tasks as we like to think they are.


Research has defined multitasking as:

  • Working on two or more tasks simultaneously.
  • Switching back and forth from one thing to another.
  • Performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

Researchers concluded that only about 2.5 percent of people are able to multitask effectively. The balance of us are monotaskers, with brains better suited to focus on one task at a time. The impact of multitasking for monotaskers can result in reduced performance and can actually slow down performance and increase errors. Other studies indicate that doing several different things at once can impair cognitive ability, even for those who multitask frequently. Chronic multitaskers often tend to exhibit a greater lack of impulse control and may downplay the risks of tackling multiple tasks at once.

While I silently thanked the researchers for validating my personal experience, I thought about some of the puzzling employee situations I’ve encountered in my career--bright, capable employees who were superstars in a role, who struggled and ultimately were not successful in a more complex role that required the ability to make rapid adjustments to priorities during a normal workday. This leads me to wonder if multitasking is part of the issue. Is requiring more actually resulting in less? Is including the ability to multitask in job descriptions setting future leaders up for success or potentially impeding progress? While striving to find ways to improve the work experience, recognize there is a reliance on providing a work environment that encourages employees to play to their strengths. Sometimes, less may result in more, and mono may yield more than multi.