The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Information Overload

March 22, 2018

I’m not a betting man, at least not an obsessive one. However, if I were invited to take just one bet on the intellectual capacity of humans, and what made the most intelligent, most successful people prize winners; I would place my chips on one’s ability to multi-task.

Keeping a multiplicity of balls in the air, moving seamlessly from one project to another, juggling our many obligations and responsibilities – in other words, being able to handle all these activities and more simultaneously is what separates astonishing accomplishment from morbid failure.

Stars multi-task. Also-rans don’t.

Divided attention

Then I read about a neuroscientist at MIT called Earl Miller1, an internationally recognized expert on divided attention. He contends that our brains are ‘not wired to multi-task well… when people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’

Taken back, I dug deeper. C’mon, I thought to myself, everyone I know can multi-task. What’s all this baloney about ‘cognitive cost?’ Then I started putting together the pieces, like assembling an item from Ikea.

You look at the diagram, lay out all the wooden bits and pieces, put all the screws, nuts, and bolts into neat rows, and finally begin the task of building an item. In my case, rather than building a bookcase, I began to build ,through research, a case against multi-tasking. This is what I discovered.

Discovery 1: Cortisol + adrenaline = scrambled thinking

Multi-tasking – according to cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin2, who wrote Why the modern world is bad for your brain (The Guardian, January 18, 2015) – ‘has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as, the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.’

Discovery 2: Dopamine-addiction feed back loop

Apparently, multi-tasking can also create what is known as ‘a dopamine-addiction feedback loop’ – a fancy way of saying that the brain rewards itself for losing focus. According to Dr. Levitin, ‘the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new.’

Discovery 3: Endogenous opioids

The pre-frontal cortex is the equivalent of a distraction prone, immature child on an incessant search for rewards – a tendency that causes a burst of endogenous opioids (the feel good factor) whose impact undermines our ability to stay focused on a single issue.

Discovery 4: Intellectual brain candy

Multi-tasking is a form of intellectual brain candy, according to Dr. Levitin, enabling us to ‘gather empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’

A blast from the past

I seem to remember reading something about this issue years ago, but the profusion of distracting (though invaluable and impossible to do without) electronic devices that we all play with on a daily basis, somehow tricked me into overlooking it.

It was a quote from the American political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist, Herbert A. Simon3: ‘A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’


The consequence of multi-tasking is information overload. We think we’re successfully performing a multiplicity of asks at once, but we’re not. We’re failing to successfully perform a multiplicity of asks at once.

James Surowiecki4, author of Fast Company (Too much information) offered a neat way of summing all this up. He called it the ‘echo-chamber effect: the chatter of business-related information (and pseudo-information) that produces brain-dead behaviour.’

When we build an Ikea bookshelf we systematically follow the project through from beginning to end – with maybe a coffee break – until the job is done. Just a thought.

Michael Fahy, The Michael Fahy Group, CIBC Wood Gundy, 604-691-7207.