Multitasking: Operational imperative or efficiency fallacy?

Contemporary OB/GYN JournalVol 69 No 2
Volume 69
Issue 2

Multitasking: Operational imperative or efficiency fallacy? | Image Credit: © Nichizhenova Elena - © Nichizhenova Elena -

Multitasking: Operational imperative or efficiency fallacy? | Image Credit: © Nichizhenova Elena - © Nichizhenova Elena -

Yes, we are obsessed with efficiency and getting things done. In August of 2022, we authored an article for this segment on meetings. For some of us, meetings have become the single greatest expenditure of time in our workday. This often leaves us little time to do the actual work that needs to get done or even worse, robs us of precious time outside of work. That is one of the reasons we rely on multitasking, such as reviewing or sending emails during meetings or participating in that last meeting in the car on the way home. But is this an effective strategy? Let’s take a closer look.


  1. Multitasking involves working on 2 or more tasks simultaneously or in rapid succession.
  2. Multitasking can negatively affect efficiency as well health, although management and workers view it as a desirable skill.
  3. The risks of multitasking, like other less than optimal although necessary activities, can be mitigated through thoughtful planning.

We define multitasking in the key takeaways above.1 It is important to reenforce that we all multitask. We do it for several reasons, not least because we all want to accomplish a lot. This does not always mean accomplishing things at work. We might want to watch a sporting event but have a report due the next day. We value connecting with friends and family yet can only seem to find the time to reach out during our evening commute. At work you do not want to say no to that request to take on another project. When it comes to multitasking, all parties should understand that the additional ask of attention will affect the final work product and maybe even one’s health.

Before we discuss why multitasking may not be effective––and this is not a tool to keep you reading––we should point out you are likely wrong if you believe you can multitask without a negative impact on your work or health and that the information we present here does not apply to you. Estimates indicate that only 2.5% of the population can multitask effectively.2 It is not surprising that people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask effectively. But for most of us, it is a habit we simply need to manage.

Your brain while multitasking

Our brain functions very well doing one task at a time. Our prefrontal cortex orchestrates other areas of the brain to be able to efficiently address the task on which we are concentrating. Switching tasks requires a complex response from our central nervous system. The process of deciding to add an extra task requires the brain to goal shift, and once our attention is on the new task, the brain must transition to a new set of cognitive rules to adequately address that task. Goal shifting and new rule activation not only take time but can be mentally exhausting. This exhaustion inevitably leads to decreased efficiency. Why can’t our brain switch tasks efficiently? The issue is what is known as attention residue.3 This is felt to be the mechanism behind the time lag in transitioning from one task to another. Pieces of information from your last task remain and thus hinder the key components of cognitive performance of the new task. Think of real-life examples that may be affecting you. Can you really just quickly check emails during a meeting? The residue of the meeting hinders comprehension of the emails, and their content will certainly hinder your reengagement with the meeting’s content.4 Scheduling meetings back-to-back will likely leave efficiency-killing attention residue, impairing an effective transition to an unrelated topic.

The effect of multitasking

But, you may be thinking, there is no way I can get all my work done without multitasking. At the end of this article, we will present strategies to improve productivity without, or at least by minimizing, multitasking. To better understand the imperative for change, we need to know what the costs of multitasking are for most of us:

  • Waste of time. Multitasking can increase the amount of time it takes to complete a task by 40%. It may take you only a few seconds to check a text while reading or preparing a report, but the time it takes your brain to transition back and forth is nonproductive.
  • Mistakes. Evidence from most studies shows an increase in mistakes while multitasking. This is from taxing the mental resources we use to prevent errors. From missing an exit while participating in a conference call when driving to sending a less than effective email during a meeting, mistakes could be multitasking’s greatest cost––the ultimate haste makes waste.
  • Fatigue. We all know the term mental exhaustion or have experienced the condition. Mental drain is an inevitable consequence of multitasking and is in proportion to the complexity of tasks involved.

Is multitasking bad for your health?

In addition to the deterioration in safety that is associated with multitasking and driving, there are other, less obvious examples of health effects. In any discussion of the effects of a behavior, we must differentiate these from causes, and there are certainly personality traits that incline one toward multitasking as a strategy. The following are possible consequences of, or at least may be associated with, multitasking1:

  1. Degraded performance at school. Multitaskers have lower academic performance and take longer to complete assignments, which can lead to negative self-esteem and anxiety.
  2. Degraded performance at work. Decreased efficiency and increased errors are evident among multitaskers.
  3. Increased impulsivity and distractibility
  4. Decreased ability to focus

Monotasking: The antidote to multitasking

Monotasking seems easy and the advice is straightforward. First, there are the technical aspects. Put away your cell phone while working or attending to other tasks. Manage your schedule mindfully to reduce attention residue. Other strategies to monotask will require more thought and even practice. Second, anticipate and recognize distractions. Do not give in to the temptation to leave one task––even a short distraction will set your efficiency back. Identify tasks proactively and schedule those where any degradation of performance would be most impactful for a time when distractions are least likely. Working in intervals is a strategy for those who have trouble monotasking. Spend a brief period of time at the end of each day to respond to those emails or alerts that may have tempted you to multitask. This will certainly improve the quality of your time away from work, but also train your team to anticipate answers to their questions at day’s end and not always in real time.5,6

What not to do as leaders

Do not multitask during meetings.7 A leader multitasking during a meeting has multiple effects. It sends a message to team members that it is OK to not pay attention during meetings. Team members will mimic this behavior and soon there will be a roomful of participants not as engaged as they should be. By now you should know that while shooting off that text or email, you cannot be engaged at the level you should be engaged at during a meeting; this makes you less effective in terms of input and follow-through. Additionally, 2 people in the same meeting emailing or texting each other multiplies the effect. More importantly, it reenforces the fallacy of the effectiveness of multitasking.


Multitasking is a ubiquitous behavior that is wrongly thought to be critical in executing the efficiency that organizations require. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Avoiding multitasking will make you more efficient and less prone to error, which are key to high-reliability organizations.


  1. Cherry K. How multitasking affects productivity and brain health. Verywell Mind. Updated March 1, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  2. Why multitasking doesn’t work. Cleveland Clinic. March 9, 2021. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  3. Bloom S. Attention residue: the silent productivity killer. Curiosity Chronicle. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  4. Smith A. The hidden costs of multitasking. Peak Mind. July 15, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  5. Lashbrooke B. Master the art of monotasking: train your brain to resist distractions. Forbes. December 17, 2021. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  6. Solan M. The art of monotasking. Harvard Health Publishing. August 1, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  7. Fuller R, Shikaloff N, Cullinan R, Harmon S. If you multitask during meetings, your team will, too. Harvard Business Review. January 25, 2018. Accessed January 2, 2024.
Related Videos
Unveiling gender disparities in medicine | Image Credit:
John Stanley, MD
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.