The Multitasking Myth


It is a lovely October morning and I’m on my way to work. Walking along the shoreline, I marvel at the autumn colours. As my glance turns right across the well-travelled multi-purpose trail, I do a double-take. The scene: A guy sort of jogging; pushing a jogging-stroller several strides ahead and then reading from his cell phone, and repeating the push-then-read action.

Nowadays, the claim of being a good multitasker is worn like a badge of honour. What science shows, however, is that our brain can only concentrate fully on one task at a time.

Multitasking, defined as “the ability to do several things at the same time” is, according to neuro-science research, not truly possible. What we actually do is switch back and forth between tasks. Each of our tasks requires cognitive resources, which are limited by a bottleneck in our brain so that when we switch to a new task, the other is put on hold and vice versa, resulting in “serial tasking”, not multi-tasking.

Such back and forth is slow and neuro-imaging studies reveal up to 40% lower productivity levels in test participants. It only truly works for tasks processed by different parts of the brain, e.g. listening to music while reading, or for innate activities like walking and talking. While we can train our brains to increase somewhat the speed with which our prefrontal cortex processes information, there are better ways to improve our productivity.

How to Improve Your Focus

  1. Become a morning person. According to a study by biologist ChristophRandler, morning-people are more proactive and effective problem-solvers. If necessary, adjust your sleep patterns.
  2. Focus on one task at a time.Close your email, Facebook, and other chat programs to block out distractions. It can take up to 15 minutes to regain complete focus after a distraction.
  3. Switch between high and low-attention tasks, e.g. after several hours of highly focused work, do some filing, shredding, the dishes or other ‘brainless’ activity for 15 minutes.
  4. Prioritise. Make a list to determine the top items you need to work on first and complete them one by one.
  5. Take mini breaks. When you’ve finished one task stand up, move around, stretch. This signals your brain the end of one task and helps re-focus on the next, suggests Carolyn Brooks, a business and life skills coach.
  6. Feed your brain. Start your day by eating breakfast and stop for meals and snacks. Take physical breaks away from your desk or work area. Foods high in antioxidants, e.g. leafy green vegetables (broccoli, spinach), fruits like blueberries, black currents, and tomatoes, wholegrains, and oily fish are especially good brain foods (Ten Foods to Boost Your Brainpower,


Most of all, avoid stress. When your heavy workload is getting to you, try looking at it through one of my favourite metaphors: How do you eat an elephant?One bite at a time.



Mo Costandi, neuroscience writer, Mar 2007,

Terri Williams, Intuit Small Business Blog, Jul 2013,

Science Daily, Jul 2009,


Martina Rowley is the founder and operator of Beach Business Hub – THE coworking space east of the Don Valley. She combined her passion and experience in the environmental sector with her community engagement side to create a local work environment where space and resources are shared. She fosters and facilitates collaboration, networking, and learning for and with small business owners and new startups.  Contact her at:, on Facebook and on Twitter

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