Proud of your ability to multitask? Don’t be.

Creatives and knowledge workers put a premium on productivity. There are times when we have so many things to do that it seems like the only way to get them done is to do more than one thing at a time. We tend to write an email while responding to an IM while brainstoming project ideas – and at the same time waiting for the coffee to finish brewing as we listen to some music in the background.

In other words, we must multitask. And why shouldn’t we? The technology we have right now – from smart homes to tabbed browsing – allows for this. This is why, when I looked up the origins of the word “multitasking,” I found that the word wasn’t used to describe human activity until the 1990s.

But just because our tools can help us do things simultaneously, does it mean we should actually do it?

The high price of multitasking

The first thing that we have to recognize is that multitasking usually isn’t about doing multiple things simultaneously. Usually, what we’re really doing is rapid task-switching.

Think about it: when you’re working and you decide to check Facebook, you’re only paying attention to Facebook. Sure, you can say that you’re continuing your work “subconsciously,” but you can only pay active attention to one thing at a time. Doing this kind of multitasking can have negative consequences on the work that we do, such as:

#1 – Multitasking is slower and less productive.

According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, multitasking can be as much as 40 percent less productive than working on one task at a time. Plus, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the main task you’re working on when you are multitasking. Imagine how productive you’d be if those 23 minutes were actually spent on focused work, rather than transitioning from one task to another.

#2 – You’re more likely to make mistakes when multitasking.

Heavy media multitaskers – people who frequently consume different types of media simultaneously – tend to do poorer in concentration and memory tasks than light multitaskers, according to a study from The University of Oregon. This is because when you’re multitasking, you’re depleting your brain’s executive resources, making you less capable of regulating how you process things.

If you’re working in an office that requires constant electronic communication, you have to be extra careful as well. It turns out that there’s a 10-point drop in a persons IQ when he or she is bombarded with email and text messages throughout the day.

#3 – Multitasking is more stressful.

In a study of information workers, researchers from the Univeristy of California, Irvine found that information workers are especially susceptible to external interruptions and these interruptions lead to increased stress levels.

This type of stress isn’t just mental. A study from the Stress Research Group shows that your heart rate and blood pressure tend to go up even when you multitask for just 15 minutes.

When multitasking works

But this isn’t to say that multitasking doesn’t work in all situations. It can work as long as you’re only working on one thing that needs your direct attention, and should you forget to pay attention to the other things, there is no effect on your productivity or safety. For example, you can certainly be working and listening to music while you’re waiting for your laundry to be done, but you cannot do these three things simultaneously while driving without compromising your safety.

Multitasking can also work if the interruptions are short and relevant to the task at hand. If you’re working on a project proposal and a colleague sends you an instant message with additional information relevant to the proposal, having a short discussion with her might not have as much of a negative effect when compared with other tasks such as checking your emails.

Minimal multitasking is best

They key to multitasking is to do it only when it’s necessary, rather than attempt to master it. After all, the study from the University of Oregon also found that the light multitaskers were actually better at multitasking than the heavy multitaskers. This is surprising because unlike most of the skills we pick up, multitasking is something we become worse at the more we do it.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.