Multitasking Is a Myth You Should Believe In

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readFeb 9, 2019
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Multitasking is the new norm. In the modern world of smartphones and continuous internet access, information and distractions are all around us. I never manage to write a full article or work on a project without regularly drifting toward WhatsApp, Twitter, and the news. Even when I’m not drifting toward distractions, I am always listening to music while I work. My excuse is that music helps to drown out distractions, and helps to put me in a more focused mental state. But if I’m honest, my singing and head-nodding breaks suggest that music acts as a frequent distraction too.

The truth about multitasking is that it’s not really multitasking at all. The attention processes in our brains aren’t built to simultaneously focus on several streams of information across different tasks. Instead, we shift between individual tasks that require our attention. Some people can do this fast enough that it looks like true multitasking — just watch professional gamers battle each other in demanding computer games — but when multiple tasks require focused attention, you’re never really engaging all of them at the same time.

This is why learning to drive a car is so difficult. When you’re learning, you need to pay careful attention to the several things you need to do: steering, checking mirrors, shifting gears, managing foot pedals, etc. You need to switch your attention between the tasks quickly and effectively to drive safely. But when you’re an expert, each of the tasks becomes habitual and requires less attention. So you can focus your mind on watching the road while everything else pretty much runs itself. You go from “multitasking” to single-tasking.

Rather than tackling the technicalities of what multitasking means in the brain, one group of researchers wanted to test how beliefs in multitasking affect performance. Most people think they’re great multitaskers: 93.32% of Americans in a survey believed they multitasked as well as, or better than, the average person. A large number of those people in the survey must be wrong, but perhaps their beliefs are good for them.

In their first experiment, the researchers recruited 162 participants and asked them to transcribe an educational video while watching it. The instructions for each participant were slightly different depending on…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: