Why Science says Multitasking Doesn’t Work in the Workplace

Everyone who thinks they can multitask… raise your hands. Now, everyone who thinks they can produce the same qualitative output whether multitasking or focusing on just one specific task keep your hands raised.

With exception to the ladies who are still convinced they can multitask and get effective work done, the room should now have their hands down.

Science & Biology; Pro-Multitasking (2 tasks)

I recently found a scientific article from April of last year entitled Multitasking Splits the Brain that states; “Neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM in Paris turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures changes in brain activity. They monitored 16 women and 16 men, aged 19 to 32, as they performed a complicated letter-matching task.

As the team expected, working on a single letter-matching task at a time activated both sides of the volunteers’ brains, setting off the anterior-to-posterior chain of command to get the job done. But as soon as the volunteers took on the second task, their brains split the labor: activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex corresponded to one task while the right side took over the other task. Each side of the brain worked independently, pursuing its own goal and monetary reward, the team reports in tomorrow’s issue of Science.

Koechlin says the results suggest that the brain can’t efficiently juggle more than two tasks because it has only two hemispheres available for task management. Indeed, when the team asked another 16 volunteers to match letters of the same color while completing the same two letter-matching tasks the first group tackled, the triple-task jugglers consistently forgot one of their tasks. They also made three times as many errors as they did while dual-tasking.”

“In terms of everyday behavior, you can cook and talk on the phone at the same time,” Koechlin explains. “The problem arises when you pursue three goals at the same time. Your prefrontal cortex will always discard one.”

Science & Biology; Contra Multitasking

We can get a better qualitative perspective from a more recent article  entitled Media multitasking  is really multi-distraction; “Multitaskers who think they can successfully divide their attention between the program on their television set and the information on their computer screen proved to be driven to distraction by the two devices, according to a new study of media multitasking by Boston College researchers.

What’s more, the subjects were not even aware of their own actions. On average, participants in the study thought they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour. In reality, they were looking nearly 10 times as often. And even if quick “glances” less than 1.5 seconds are removed from the equation, people were still switching over 70 times per half hour.

Understanding the physical behavior of multi-media multitaskers raises questions about the level of comprehension among people who switch their eyes between the devices, specifically the impact on productivity or on children doing their homework.”


While the last article focused on “media multitasking”, it’s the science of what’s going that should help us understand why multitasking just doesn’t work when you require a high degree of qualitative outcome. As a complementary post, please see “Multitasking is a Myth” – why your team isn’t delivering results, as that what we’re seeing every day in the workplace. Multitasking negatively affects quality, employee motivation & costs (your bottom line).

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