How to quit multitasking in a world that demands it

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Despite the fact that experts have repeatedly cautioned against multitasking, small business owners keep doing it. Why?

people sitting around a table with a bunch of gadgets

Research says it's no good

One of the best ways to stop multitasking is to understand how ineffective it really is. We automatically respond to multiple demands on our time by trying to do everything at once. In doing so, we never really focus on one thing, which leads to long-term problems with cognitive control. A Stanford University study found that multitaskers are less able to pay attention, have less memory control, and have a reduced ability to switch from one task to another, compared to those who work on one task at a time.

So why do we do it? For small business owners every minute counts, so we’re sure that working on three or four things at once is the best way to get things done. Stanford researchers found that when study participants dealt with multiple streams of information at once, they were unable to filter out the information that was irrelevant to the current task. Suddenly multitasking doesn’t sound like a good idea anymore.

The lure of the Internet

One issue all professionals face today is the constant stream of incoming information brought by email, texts and notifications. Instead of simply checking for messages every hour or so, we feel compelled to respond to every alert. This causes us to stop what we’re doing multiple times throughout the course of a project. Email isn’t the only distraction we face. The internet can be especially disruptive, especially in today’s social media-driven world. Even if the sites we’re checking are business-related, constantly switching between Facebook, email, and work can pull our focus into a million pieces, ultimately draining ability to do quality work.

The business impact

After an incident where a patient was put at serious medical risk due to an attending doctor responding to a text message, Harvard spoke out on the dangers patients now face due to electronics in healthcare facilities. While most entrepreneurs aren’t faced with life-or-death situations each day, multitasking can lead to serious problems. Say, for instance, a worker is so frustrated with a client, he fires off an email to an associate complaining about that client. Instead of sending it to the associate, though, he sends it directly to the client. One simple mistake can lead a small business to lose an important customer. By dividing attention between multiple projects, emails, and phone calls, we consistently put our businesses and our livelihoods in jeopardy.

It takes four times longer to recognise new things so you’re not saving time; multitasking actually costs time.

- Julie Morgenstern, Productivity Expert

Multitasking's health effects

Perhaps more concerning than the risk we’re bringing to our business is the risk we’re bringing to our health. Multitasking has been found to increase stress, especially if all of the tasks are important. The body’s natural response to this stress is to pump more adrenaline and other stress hormones, which can put a strain on a person’s body over time. Studies have shown that chronic job-related stress can lead to heart disease and depression, among other issues.

Productivity expert Julie Morgenstern points out that science has proven the brain lacks the ability to efficiently switch between tasks. “It takes four times longer to recognise new things so you’re not saving time; multitasking actually costs time,” Morgenstern told “In addition, studies have shown that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn when multitasking, which means you could have to redo the work or you may not do the next task well because you forgot the information you learned. Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days – they’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic.”

Practical tips to try today

1. Break away from electronics

Experts recommend disciplining yourself to break away from electronics for long periods of time throughout the day. If ignoring social media is a challenge, use it as a reward, allowing yourself to only check once after a set number of hours have passed. This will motivate you to keep going, knowing a break is coming.

One of the first things you should do is turn off email notifications while you’re working, both on your phone and your computer. Email checks should be scheduled, with certain periods of the day dedicated solely to working on one task at a time. When you can give your full focus to tasks without distraction, you’ll not only be more efficient, you’ll have a higher-quality work output. 

2. Set shifting

Another way to combat the demand to multitask is to do something experts call set shifting. This involves taking a second between tasks to mentally shift your brain from the first task to the next. Once your attention has been refocused, give 100 percent to it until it’s time to switch to the next task. This is a great way to train yourself to focus without committing to only one work project for hours at a time. With so many demands on our time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of multitasking. With a little discipline, we can condition ourselves to focus on only one item at a time, which will make us more efficient and relaxed.

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