Many people assume that the mark of an expert time manager is the ability to multitask. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Researchers now understand that executive control (the brain’s “CEO”) only really has the capacity to focus on one incoming stimuli at a time. What we consider multitasking (doing multiple tasks in parallel) is really “task switching,” or rapidly shifting from one area of focus to another. For most types of tasks, people lose time when must switch from one task to another—and this time loss increases with the complexity of the tasks. Time costs are greatest when people are forced to switch to tasks that are relatively unfamiliar, suggesting that rapid task switching is only possible when the Fast Brain is engaged (APA, 2001, para. 2–5).

Research suggests that executive control involves two distinct but complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now, instead of that”) and rule activation (“I am turning off the rules for this task, and turning on the rules for that task”). Both take quite a bit of time, and contribute to mental fatigue. Thus, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it actually takes a substantial toll on productivity (APA, 2001, para. 6).


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