Why Multitasking Is Bullshit

“Must be able to multitask!” “Are you a multitasking master?” “Must be quick, efficient, and able to multitask…”

It’s a pretty standard line on kitchen job postings, especially production positions (as distinct from line or service jobs.) The ideal candidate for any given production job is quick, clean, polite, efficient, honest, methodical, able to be coached but also a self-starter… and possesses this legendary ability to split their focus across several tasks but perform them all flawlessly.

People like that do exist- I have trained a few of them- but that seemingly unique ability to multitask does not exist. Not on a mental level and, in fact, not even on the physical level. Regularly attempting to divide your attention across several tasks can lead to mental fatigue and even damaging your brain.

Why do people keep asking employees to do it, then? Why do people brag about “being a multitasker,” and more importantly, how can we fix the damage it causes?

a young woman with long hair presses her fingers to her temples surrounded by books at a library table
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

What Is “Multitasking”?

In the minds of most people that use the term, multitasking has a straightforward definition- “the ability to focus on and/or perform several different tasks simultaneously.” It’s pretty easy to see why such a quality is sought by employers- if one person can do three jobs reasonably well at once, that’s less people you need to hire. Convince that one person that they should only accept pay for doing one of those jobs? Even better! Sure they might burn out a bit fast, but let’s be real here- everyone is expendable, and you’ll get triple the profit from their labor in the meantime.

On a physical level, multitasking assumes that a person can “train” their prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that lets you focus, pay attention, and prioritize tasks) to split that focus between several things at once- which is physically impossible.

Think of your prefrontal cortex like the headlights on your car. They shine nice and bright straight in front of you, but trying to get them to change direction involves turning the entire car- and turning the car involves a lot more moving parts than just the headlights. Unlike a car, however, changing the task you focus on doesn’t just mean doing the same thing in a different direction. When your brain “changes direction,” different parts of it activate depending on the task you are doing. “Multitasking” then isn’t shining those headlights in several directions at once. It’s rapidly turning the focus from one thing to another- and switching tasks costs.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

“Switching Cost” Hurts Your Brain and The Bottom Line

In computer programming, the term “switching cost” refers to the amount of energy and processing power that gets used up switching between tasks. Humans deal with the same thing– whether it’s time lost refocusing on the new task, recalling what’s going on and what needs to happen next, or the energy spent making your brain go from “chop these onions just so” to “make sure that custard is stirred regularly and doesn’t burn,” people burn up to 40% of their energy switching between tasks.

It’s energy that could be spent, ironically, getting more tasks done in a day one at a time. What’s more, when you are forced to split your attention between several tasks, nothing is getting your full attention. That leads to poorer results and preventable mistakes. Even worse, forcing your brain to shift its focus constantly can make you lose your ability to focus on anything at all. Too many times I’ve heard career line cooks and bakers claim that they can’t focus long enough to read a book, or even watch a lengthy television series they like.

We’ve all seen people who “multitask” well, though- and have apparently done it for years. They seem to have three different things going on at once and it all comes out perfectly while they just move through their day- serene, focused, unflustered, completely in command of everything they touch. How does that happen? Well, the secret is very simple and boring- they aren’t multitasking.

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Multitasking? Or Just Good Task/Time Management?

In the restaurant world, the old saying is “Always Be Moving.” If you’re waiting for a pot to boil, you can be cutting croissants. If you’re waiting for a certain mixing bowl to be freed up, you can be prepping the recipe. This is simply keeping busy (and keeping the chef from wondering why he’s paying you to clean the same two square feet of table for twenty minutes.) It’s not “multitasking.”

In the bakeshop, what you might think of as multitasking might be some of my production the other day:

  • Boiling dairy for a custard
  • Mixing batter in the mixer
  • Cutting up apple garnishes

All at the same time. Sounds like multitasking, right? Not really- I was only paying attention to the apples.

The truth is, what most people (and employers) actually mean when they say “multitasking” is “practicing good time and task management. As long as I peek over at my pot every now and again, it doesn’t need me to stand their and watch it. Same with the mixer- most recipes don’t need me to watch the mixing happen. At most, I can just put on a timer. Then I focus on another task and functionally ignore the other two- specifically, I focus on the task that does require my full attention: the one that involves using a sharp bit of metal near my fingers.

It also happens to be the task that I can put down most easily without ruining anything when one of the others needs attention- the timer going off or the kettle boiling. This has its limits too- if I try to do too many things at once, one of the other tasks might slip my notice and result in mistakes, damaged product, or ugly messes. You really only have to let milk boil over and cover your workspace once before you learn that lesson.

Speaking of lessons, hopefully you’ve learned some from his blog post- but maybe it’s been a while. Maybe you’ve spent years at your job getting pulled in a hundred different directions at once, and you feel like you just can’t focus on anything like you used to. Is there a way to get that back?

Fixing The Damage

There are plenty of ways to improve your focus and concentration after spending a long time splitting it. Not everything will work for everyone, and a mix of activities might be a good idea.

For me, regular exercise and meditation have been incredibly beneficial- not just for my general health and stress levels, but my ability to concentrate on individual tasks and notice the particulars of situations.

Playing certain games that involve strategy, procedure, and logic can also retrain your brain to focus on individual problems. There are plenty of apps and smartphone games, of course- but don’t forget more old-fashioned ones like chess, sudoku, crossword puzzles, and memory challenges like Kim’s Game.

If you work late, staying away from screens may be extra beneficial because getting enough sleep is ridiculously important for your ability to focus as well as your general health.

Summing Up…

“Multitasking” doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. What people think of as multitasking is just good time and task management, and people who try to tackle several tasks at once without letting themselves “put them on the back burner” wind up damaging their ability to focus and think.

Beyond just developing better time and task management skills, doing activities that allow your brain to concentrate and rest will repair your ability to focus and allow you to devote your full attention to one thing at a time- getting more, done better, and easier.

What are some other techniques you’ve found that help you focus?
Are you a “multitasker?”

Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay Classy,

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