Multitasking vs. Single Tasking: Which is Really Best for Productivity?

Multitasking is often considered the most efficient way to work, but is that really true? This article compares multitasking vs. monotasking to see which is actually the best for productivity.
Charlotte Barber, BCs, PGC, BABCP®

  • Multitasking is workplace jargon for trying to do multiple tasks at the same time rather than finishing them in order.

  • Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t actually make us more productive. It only creates more stress and – sometimes – the “illusion” of productivity.

  • Ultimately, single or “monotasking” is far superior to multitasking, especially when combined with frequent breaks and mindfulness exercises.

Multitasking vs. Monotasking. It’s a huge debate in the professional world. Indeed, we’ve all had those moments when we realized we had too much work to do and not enough time to do it. However, for some industries and positions, feeling constantly “underwater” due to a generous workload is a daily experience.

For years, the antidote for this unrelenting busyness has been multitasking. But what exactly is multitasking? More importantly, can it really improve productivity and efficiency, as so many people claim?

The answer might surprise you.

What is Multitasking?

Multitasking is the act of handling more than one project or activity at the same time. It’s typically associated with professional work, though we do it all the time in our private lives. For instance, we might cook dinner and talk on the phone or listen to music and drive. Generally, our brain has no problem splitting two activities up, though it sometimes doesn’t get the same level of enjoyment as it would if we focused on one thing.

In business circles, multitasking refers to attempting to manage multiple operations simultaneously, either in the short or long term. Imagine you’re at work, and you have to answer emails, attend two meetings, and work on a project report all on the same day. If you were a multitasker, you wouldn’t try to finish one task before starting another. Instead, you’d switch between them frequently.

Does Multitasking Actually Make You More Productive?

In short: no. However, it can make you think you’re being more productive.

You see, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking that if we do more work at once, we’re actually getting more done. Much of this is based on the idea that feeling and looking busy can make you more productive. For some people, switching back and forth between different tasks keeps their minds “nimble” and alert.

Unfortunately, these people are in a very small minority. Because while the human brain can do multiple things at once, it’s not exactly built to manage multiple tasks at once. While every professional job has its mundane parts, generally, the reason we’re paid for our work is because it requires some effort or skill. And dividing up that effort or skill adequately is just something our brains are very good at.

You see, every time we switch from task to task, our brain needs to adjust its processes accordingly. Eventually, it will become so overwhelmed with information that it ends up lowering our productivity. In many cases, this is also true of those “successful multitaskers." However, the fact that they’re so busy has tricked them into thinking they’re getting more done.

Aside from the fact that multitasking doesn’t actually help you accomplish more tasks, there are other problems as well. For example, engaging in multitasking also leads to a lot of stress. And the more tasks we have to do, the more stress gets associated with them. Study after study shows that stress reduces productivity further, often negating any positive multitasking benefits.

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Is It Better To Focus On Single-Tasking?

Almost always! And the main reason for this may surprise you. Hint: It's the stress again.

Dealing with constant stress as you try to multitask is not only going to be an issue, but it will also bring in a multitude of problems from a health standpoint. It will affect the way you think and work and, therefore, the quality of what you produce. Eventually, multitasking makes our brains want to complete things as fast as possible just to get them done.

So, even though we often think of it as intolerably slow, we simply have to realize that working on a single task is always going to bring in better results. Sure, it sounds better to do multiple things at once. It might even convince your teammates you’ve really got your work together – at least for a while.

But the truth is that multitasking is only going to get you so far. If you want to produce the best possible results and avoid feeling constantly stressed, single tasking is by far the better option.

How to Stop Multitasking and Focus

Creating a proper schedule and planning your day are the best ways to avoid the temptation of multitasking, especially if you’ve been working that way for a while now. Another thing you might consider is optimizing your schedule for your circadian rhythm.

For instance, you might work on the more difficult tasks when you are at peak performance. Alternatively, you might save more menial duties for those times you feel more sluggish. Knowing how to manage your time and how to tackle challenges is never easy, but it will definitely work better than multitasking.

Of course, you should also have a plan for dealing with interruptions. Simple things like turning off alerts and notifications or only checking emails at certain times during the day will help a lot. Too many of us are trained to leap to our phones every time they beep or vibrate, and that is just as disruptive for our brains as switching tasks.

Finally, experts recommend that you take frequent breaks and practice mindfulness. This is the best way to ensure that your mind stays focused and doesn’t get bored. So, take a few minutes to get up and stretch roughly every 30 minutes to an hour. During lunch, maybe take a short walk as well. Even these simple breaks can contribute a lot to your overall productivity.

Single-Tasking is Still the Best Approach

Multitasking isn’t some sort of “superpower” you can develop and enhance. In the end, it’s nothing more than juggling multiple tasks simultaneously. And while it’s true this can make people feel more productive, it often leads to reduced efficiency and increased stress, especially in the long run. The human brain simply isn’t suited to managing several tasks at once, and frequent task-switching can overwhelm it, lowering overall productivity.

Although perceived as slower, Monotasking, or focusing on a single task, typically yields better results while also reducing stress. To avoid multitasking, try to create a structured schedule, optimize work according to one’s circadian rhythm, and practice mindfulness. These strategies help maintain focus, improve the quality of work, and support mental well-being.
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Multitasking F.A.Q. 

What is Multitasking?

Multitasking involves handling multiple tasks simultaneously or switching between tasks frequently. It’s often perceived as a way to be more productive.

Does Multitasking Increase Productivity?

Although it might seem efficient, multitasking can actually lower productivity for many people. This is because the human brain generally struggles with managing multiple tasks at once, leading to reduced focus and effectiveness.

What are the Drawbacks of Multitasking?

Multitasking can lead to increased stress, decreased quality of work, and a condition known as “hurry sickness. This is where there’s a constant rush to complete tasks without sufficient attention to detail.

What is Single-Tasking?

Single-tasking, or monotasking, means focusing on one task at a time. This approach can lead to better results as it allows for complete focus and dedication to the task at hand.

Is Single-Tasking More Effective than Multitasking?

For most people, single-tasking is more effective. It enables better concentration and quality of work, as the brain is not overwhelmed by multiple tasks.

How Can One Transition from Multitasking to Single-tasking?

Transitioning can be achieved by planning and scheduling tasks, optimizing work according to one’s circadian rhythm, managing interruptions effectively, and practicing mindfulness to maintain focus.

What Role Do Breaks and Mindfulness Play in Single-tasking?

Breaks and mindfulness practices are crucial in single-tasking. They help refresh the mind, maintain focus, and ensure that tasks are completed with full attention.

What Should be Done About Urgent Interruptions While Single-tasking?

Planning for interruptions and managing them assertively is important. This includes setting aside specific times for checking emails or turning off notifications to minimize distractions.

Can Everyone Benefit from Single-tasking?

While some people might find multitasking effective, most will benefit from single-tasking due to its focus on quality and efficiency.

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