Something that I’ve heard a lot is “men can’t multitask”.

I’d like to correct that statement. No-one can multitask.

Try reading the message in the image on the right:

No matter who you are, I do not believe you were able to easily separate the two messages the first time you looked at it.

Besides being a useful reminder that might save your life, this image casts into doubt the effectiveness or wisdom of trying to multitask.

Not Giving Something Your Full Attention

If you’re someone who is apparently able to multi-task, then you should be able to do things like read and reply to emails whilst speaking on the phone to somebody, or attending a webinar.

Whenever I try to do this, I end up completely missing whatever the person on the other end of the phone is saying, or realising that I haven’t heard anything from the webinar while I’ve been in my inbox.

Working on Two Tasks at the Same Time

It has been scientifically proven that trying to split attention across two things results in both being done poorly, or taking longer.

Studies have even suggested that multi-tasking is harmful for your brain.

Health risks aside, multi-tasking at work is a bad idea because it results in you not performing to your potential. provides this example:

You’re on the phone with a supplier, while quietly typing up notes about your previous phone call. As soon as you hang up, a colleague sends you an instant message, which you read over while dialing your manager’s extension number. Then, during your phone conversation with her, you start updating your week’s to-do-list.

Many people try to do things like this to boost their productivity.

What ends up happening is they make mistakes while typing up the notes, they don’t hear a lot of the things being said on the phone call, and they can’t focus on their to-do list.

Everything ends up taking longer because you have to go back and correct the mistakes you’ve made.

You can’t write an email and speak on the phone because both tasks involve communicating a message to other people.

However, it is possible to write an email and listen to someone at the same time – or write up notes whilst listening to someone give a lecture. This is because the two tasks require different functions of your brain. However, your attention to the speaker will fade in and out as your brain reorients itself when you switch tasks. It isn’t possible to fully focus on both tasks.

I find that when I listen to music while I work, I stop noticing the music when I get deeply into the work. A song I like may come on, but I realise I haven’t heard any of it by the time it finishes. This is more evidence that the brain doesn’t like to do two things at the same time.

Hopping between tasks

Do you ever find yourself starting something, then stopping it to do something else, then going back to the original thing before stopping again to do another new thing?

Even though you’re not doing multiple tasks simultaneously (impossible), this is also multi-tasking as your mind has to reorient itself onto the new task each time you switch. It takes time to get up a flow, so constantly interrupting yourself (or allowing interruptions) will impact your productivity.

This is why it’s a bad idea to have your emails open while you’re focused on important work. Stopping tasks to reply to emails means the total time you spend on both tasks (the emails plus the work) will be longer, as it takes you time to get into a flow.

Multiple Tasks Increasing Stress

Being invested in multiple tasks at once also increases stress levels.

  • You get less done
  • You tend to forget where you left off on one task
  • You lose focus
  • You’re taking on more than you’re able to handle
  • You’re overloading your brain

Reacting to others whenever they interrupt you or send an email means you spend more time running around, caught in the stressful “busy trap” resulting in high levels of stress, and a low amount of important work getting done.

The benefit of simplifying

De-cluttering can work wonders for reducing stress and the tendency to multitask, resulting in higher output:

  • Clear your desk.
  • Clear your inbox regularly.
  • Close programs on your PC and tabs on your browser.
  • Set specific times for replying to emails and taking phone calls.
  • Turn off audible and visual alerts for new emails.
  • Try the pomodoro technique to focus your attention on one thing at a time.

If you catch yourself being drawn away from your current task, try simplifying. Close your emails, close down programs you’re not using, and get things off your desk if you’re not using them.

Come to our live webinar and learn how to improve your email management!

Working with your emails open counts as multi tasking and impacts your productivity. Come to our webinar to learn the secrets of effective email management.