Multitasking Isn’t Helping You. Here’s What to Do Instead

When is the last time you bragged about what a good multitasker you are? Or heard someone else bragging about their ability to multitask?


When we multitask, we are essentially doing multiple tasks at the same time. Here are some examples of multitasking: Talking on the phone and surfing the web. Helping your child with his/her homework while you make dinner. Catching up on emails while you watch TV.


It seems like our fast-paced world is constantly demanding that we do more and do it faster. And the only way to accomplish more and faster seems to be to multitask. Multitasking certainly gets encouraged in the workplace. And as my examples illustrate, we are doing a lot of multitasking at home.



Multitasking Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Health


Let me ask you a question: Is multitasking good for your health?


To answer that question, let’s take a look at where we got the word “multitasking” in the first place. It’s been around for a long time, but I first started hearing it in relation to personal computers, which are designed to handle multiple operations at the same time. But guess what? My reading about the human brain have emphasized that our brains were not designed to multitask. In fact, our brains were designed to accomplish one task at a time.


Because our brains aren’t designed for all that multitasking, there are some downsides. For example, what you accomplish while you are multitasking may not be as high in quality as it would have been had you been more focused. Ever had a meal not turn out so great because you weren’t focused? Or something you were completing at work? (And let’s not even get started on texting and driving.)


Multitasking also leads to stress, which is an especially important consideration if you are living with a chronic condition. Multitasking puts your mind and body on high alert, and sets off a steady flow of stress hormones, which has a negative impact on your health. Making a mistake can lead to more stress.


Here’s what especially concerns me when my clients discuss multitasking.


  • First, all that additional stress. That’s not a great way to take care of yourself.


  • The errors that can result from multitasking. Having too many balls in the air can result in not always being so compliant with your treatment regimen, like those times when you forget to take your medication.



  • Multitasking can damage your relationships. Words spoken to a family member may not come out as intended if you aren’t focused on what you are saying or, on the other hand, if you aren’t really listening.


  • And let’s face it, multitasking is just exhausting.


Here’s what else concerns me about multitasking and my clients living with chronic conditions. In my experience, these individuals all too often place additional pressure on themselves to multitask. They feel like they have to prove to others – and to themselves – that they can keep up with the many competing demands of their life. That they are still “normal.” It’s sad to watch these clients pushing themselves so hard and, in the process, placing their wellness at risk. This can also be a form of denial: Keep pushing and the chronic condition will just give up and go away.


It is even more sad that some of these individuals have family members, including their partners, who are also placing them under pressure to stay on the treadmill.


So my question for you: How much multitasking are you doing? Another question: How is it affecting your physical and emotional wellness? And a third question: Will you consider getting off the treadmill and taking better care of yourself?


Not sure how to get off the multitasking treadmill? Here are some ideas to consider:


Ask yourself: What am I trying to prove? It’s always feel sad when I talk to individuals living with a chronic condition about how hard they push themselves. So often, the pushing is all about proving to themselves or to other people that they are still able to do everything they could do before they were diagnosed. That they are, in a word, “normal.” So ask yourself what you are trying to prove by all that multitasking. It’s turning you into a hard taskmaster when you need to be on your own side.


Give yourself permission to get off the treadmill. Decide to take the best possible care of yourself, including being willing to make choices about what gets done and what doesn’t get done. Seize control of your self-care!


Recognize the toll that multitasking takes. It’s only human to dive in and try to get everything done, even if it means trying to do more than one thing at a time. Let me say a couple things about all that diving in. First, when you do that, every task feels like it must be urgent. Even when it isn’t. Second, your body feels like it’s in the middle of a crisis. Even when it isn’t. And that’s what leads to all the stress.


Be mindful of your priorities. The best way to avoid the feeling that you’re in the midst of a crisis is to take a step back and look at what’s a priority and what isn’t. For each task in front of you, ask: Is this important or can it wait until later? And after you’ve answered that question, ask: Where do I want to start? Focus on what’s most important first. And be okay about leaving some tasks undone. Not easy, I know. But your mind and body will thank you.


Think: One task at a time. Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time. So how about working with your brain? Choose your most important task and dive in. Work at your own pace. Stay with it until you are finished. Resist the desire to work on another task or two at the same time. When you are done, move onto the next task. For example, put that phone call aside until you’re finished cooking dinner. Enjoy the TV show with your family and catch up on email later. One thing at a time, starting with what’s most important.


Be okay about saying no. Here’s where I get the most resistance from my clients. And I have to admit that I’m not always so good about saying no myself. It’s not easy. But think of it this way. When you say yes, what are you saying yes to? Another task to squeeze into your day? More likelihood that you will find yourself multitasking? Along with the stress that multitasking can lead to? Take a step back when you are asked to do something. Decide whether it’s a priority or not. If it is, then consider how other priorities will have to shift their place in line. (Again, one at a time, not two-by-two.) And if it’s not a priority, be okay about saying no. Set limits with yourself and with others.


Take a look at your own drive to multitask. And then consider what you can do to reign it in and treat yourself a little more humanely. One task at a time leaves you with more energy! And a whole lot less stress!