Is Multitasking One of Your Superpowers?

September 16, 2019

The truth is, multitasking is a lie. You can't do two complex tasks at the exact same time.

For example: baking a cake and performing open-heart surgery.

Or texting and driving.

Even if you say to yourself, Well, maybe some of that is true but I can definitely sit in on a meeting and write an email.

If you're really concentrating on the meeting, you will need to read and re-read the email for content way more than you would if all you were doing was writing an email.

Likewise, if you're really focused on the email, it's likely that you will miss key parts of the meeting and look up when you hear something that catches your attention and not be completely sure what you just heard or how it may be relevant.


Clifford Nass, a cognitive scientist at Stanford University who specializes in interface design, wondered not only if multitasking is even possible but also what the long term cumulative effects of trying it would do to the brain.

Other studies have already proved that there are serious performance trade-offs in trying to do two things at once.

Brandon Keim wrote for NOVA, The tasks, and the mental performances underlying them, bleed into each other, much as it is difficult to read aloud while typing something else. Do two or more things simultaneously, and you’ll do none at full capacity.

People who claimed to be strong multitaskers failed to filter irrelevant information from relevant. So much for self-assessments. Click To Tweet

So Clifford Nass and his colleague at Stanford, cognitive scientist Eyal Ophir, put students through a battery of tests designed to measure their cognitive capacities when not multitasking.

The results were shocking.

People who claimed to be strong multitaskers failed to filter irrelevant information from relevant sources.

That's worth stating again.

Not even WHILE multitasking, people who THINK they are good at multitasking had difficulty prioritizing and being able to tell the difference between what was important and what was not.

People who claimed to be good at multitasking also had diminished powers of mental organization and extra difficulty switching between tasks.

Multitaskers did well on only one part of one test but failed to accomplish one of the major objectives of the test.

The test was set up to examine “inattention blindness.”

There is a famous experiment in which people concentrating on basketball players shooting baskets fail to spot a man in a gorilla suit walking among the players. In the Stanford version, the high multitaskers saw the gorilla but completely lost count of the baskets.

This is how professor Nass summarizes the results: Multitaskers’ look where they shouldn’t, and their memory is all sloppy.”

In another study he found that high multitaskers have more social problems than low-multitasking peers interesting.

Rapidly switching tasks also generates the release of stress hormones, something that may have been useful to cavemen looking for food while trying to avoid being something else's dinner.

Today, though, that same jolt of hormones is triggered by every prompt, beep and chirp.

So not only does this threaten your overall health it also hurts your memory.


The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London did their own study of 1,100 workers in the UK.

They discovered that multitasking specifically with electronic media caused a greater IQ decrease than smoking marijuana or losing a night's sleep.

So the next time you think you’re firing on all 12 cylinders when juggling your tablet, smartphone, and messaging app, remember that the stoner kid in the mailroom and the person who just pulled an all-nighter are both smarter and more competent than you are while you’re doing it.

The Bottom Line

Look, you may be able to successfully pivot from task to task without much negative impact but you definitely can't do two things at the same time and expect either to be done well. On top of that, even trying to multitask over time degrades your memory and messes with your ability to prioritize.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!