Chase Two Rabbits, Catch Neither: Mental Resilience & The Myth of Multi-Tasking

It’s become a 21st century buzz word for the ambitious, and as such, has been taken seriously as a productivity enhancer by professionals in all lines of business. For some managers, it is expected from their subordinates, even required. There are techniques that are touted as more effective than others for engaging in this type of task performance. And once we “get the hang of it”, many of us credit it for the timeliness of our accomplishments and the conservation of our mental energy. It’s called multi-tasking, and remarkably, despite all the importance we bestow upon it, it doesn’t even exist!

It’s true. Cognitive research has demonstrated that the brain cannot perform two or more complex tasks simultaneously. What many of us consider to be multi-tasking is actually the brain toggling back and forth between the tasks. And before you become convinced that multi-tasking by any other name is nonetheless a force for good that enhances your productivity, think again. To understand this paradox more deeply, let’s explore the intricacies of so-called multi-tasking that may be sabotaging your mental resilience.

Busyness Belies

Aside from this startling new truth about a long-held belief, it’s no longer breaking news that the concept of multi-tasking does not live up to its name. Nonetheless, many of us insist on employing the multi-task strategy in our jobs (or at least implying it in our language), with the intention of seeming like we’re busier, and therefore resourceful. Too many folks honestly believe they cannot reach their goals without multi-tasking. 75% of professionals surveyed by DRIVEN agree or strongly agree that “multi-tasking is essential to get everything done. I do it regularly at work.”

Meanwhile, it’s been revealed through various experiments that any attempt to perform multiple tasks concurrently instead of separately will not only detract from the effectiveness of each task, but it will slash your level of productivity enormously (link to this article on to better understand the intriguing and disturbing dynamics of the multi-tasking malaise.)

To make matters worse, another wild study that included MRI brain scans showed that folks who attempt to multi-task more often had less brain density in a crucial cognitive cortex known as the ACC (that article again.) In plain English, the act of multi-tasking, which is disadvantageous in the first place, physically gnaws away at your brain!

The Interruption Epidemic

I’ve written and spoken about workplace interruptions by colleagues on several occasions. Less understood is how often we interrupt ourselves at work without even realizing it. Distractions like email alerts, social media and web browsing can interrupt our focus just as severely as an unexpected cubicle pop-in by a colleague. Near the top of this list should also be our attempt to multi-task, which, in and of itself, is a back-and-forth interruption onslaught. As author and leadership coach David Rock indicates, it takes up to 23 minutes to refocus after a workplace distraction. Apply this statistic to multi-tasking, when your brain is interrupting itself in perpetuity, and the saying, “chase two rabbits, catch neither” has even more profound implications.

Solutions Await

The one-two punch of multi-tasking is fairly simple: Because professionals think they can multi-task, they also think they’re good at it, and feel encouraged to do more of it! What’s not often understood is that by engaging your prefrontal cortex in two directions at once, you’re not working toward your goals. This keeps your career in stagnation, your stress level high, and your mental resilience compromised. The solution can also be simple: Commit to doing one thing at a time! Then, distribute this antidote to busyness around to your employees by way of suggesting they start scheduling their tasks accordingly. Set a smartphone timer as a gentle alert that it will soon be time to switch tasks. Eliminate the obvious distractions by closing down all other computer tabs and windows besides the ones related to the task at hand. Clear your desk of clutter and lock yourself into focus mode.

The Real Multi-Tasking

One way you can genuinely multi-task, with benefits, is by supplementing one mental activity with a physical activity. For instance, stepping away from a creative work task for a while can allow you to review your progress with refreshed eyes. Take yourself a fresh-air walk around the block before completing a workplace project. And here’s one we can all relate to: Have you ever noticed how your best ideas seem to arrive while you’re having a shower? If ever you reach a mental roadblock, exploit this concept by getting up from your desk and temporarily changing your environment. You’ll be amazed how quickly and effectively those constructive thoughts start to rush in. Increased productivity will be the first tangible result, and a full mental energy tank is your personal reward!

Looking back so far on our GRACE in the WorkplaceTM series, it’s profound how Resilience takes so many shapes: spiritual, physical, emotional and mental. Next, we’ll spend some more time exploring Grit, or the G in GRACE. But not before I reveal my Word of the Year for 2018! Have a Happy New Year, and stay tuned.