The Myth of Multitasking: How to Reduce Stress and Improve Productivity | Sharon Saline | 7 Min Read

December 26, 2022

It’s one o’clock on a Tuesday and I’m wrapping up three hours of therapy. In the next 90 minutes, I have to do my notes, check my emails, eat my lunch and leave enough time to get my beloved afternoon coffee before starting up again. It’s a tall order. Do I walk away from my computer, sit on my office couch and eat my lunch quietly? No. Either I talk on the phone or look at a magazine while munching my salad or, even worse, I eat while typing. Then, I rush out for ten minutes to the café next door while texting my mother and talking to a friend on the way back to my office. After four more hours of therapy, I finish my day by writing up my notes while checking my texts and phone messages, finally glancing at my emails while making a dinner plan with my husband. As I drive to pick up my pup, Milo, from doggy daycare, I wonder why I feel so tired and worn out. Does this sound familiar?

I’m not describing my day so you can feel sorry for me. Rather, I’m illustrating a common human struggle today: a compulsion for overactivity and a lack of time to reset. What I should do, what I know is best for my brain and my body is to pause when I eat a meal. To enjoy my short walk to the café and take in the sights and sounds around me. To stop shredding my free time into distracted chunks so I don’t feel rejuvenated when I return to client work. But, instead, like most adults, I believe that I can multitask effectively and expect to do so. In reality, when we multitask, we stress our brains and exhaust ourselves. Plus, we model for our children and teens that it’s okay for them to do the same thing. There has to be a better way. After all, we are supposed to be human beings, not human doings. Why is this so tough?

In our current culture, we are all misled into believing that multitasking is a positive attribute. The more you can do, the better. We wrongly assume that allowing our attention to wander, to space out occasionally, is not ‘productive’ and is therefore a waste of time. However, periodically letting your mind drift is actually good for you. It allows for creativity, exploration, and rest that the brain doesn’t otherwise engage in. Instead, we are hijacked by the social pressure to perform and the availability of our devices into thinking that we can do several things simultaneously without a downside. This just isn’t true and it’s especially detrimental for kids and adults with ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety, twice-exceptionality, and autism spectrum disorders. 

Multitasking actually slows productivity, changes how we absorb information, and interferes with social relationships, especially if our attention is split by our devices. While the use of technology in our lives is here to stay, it is up to us to learn to manage it effectively and show our kids how to do the same. We can do this by focusing on doing one thing at a time, designating time for wandering, uncommitted attention, and building habits that improve productivity, organization, and focus.

The belief that we can effectively do multiple things simultaneously is an overestimation of our true cognitive, emotional, and physical capacities. When you multitask, you are splitting your attention. Each time you switch from one thing to another, you’re not fully concentrating on either task and need a mental warm-up to resume the suspended task. Efficiency goes down. Productivity decreases. You are likely to get less done and feel more depleted as a result. 

Media multitasking is part of the new ‘normal.’ It’s now acceptable to type emails during a meeting or pick up your phone in the middle of a conversation. Each interruption pulls our attention away but also becomes addictive. ADHD brains, already taxed by executive functioning challenges and prone to seeking out high dopamine activities, are biologically primed for the increased adrenaline and cortisol these interruptions deliver. Listening to music while you work or relying on brown noise to soothe the buzzing in your head is fine. Folding laundry, a relatively thoughtless activity, while watching television can also work. But switching from tab to tab, from device to device, from one sensory overload to another result in needless stress and anxiety. 

These patterns overwhelm all brains but particularly those that are neurodivergent. For youngsters who are outside-the-box thinkers (those who already struggle with working memory and/or processing speed issues), media multitasking can have serious, if not dire, consequences. When adults help them set limits around multitasking, no matter how small, you will start to give their growing brains more time and space to process and retain information, produce a higher quality of work, and show up genuinely for colleagues, friends, and family.

What can we do about the unhealthy trend of media multitasking? Opt for single-tasking as often as possible. You may not be able to eliminate all media multitasking habits but, if you can make even a small change, you’ll feel more productive and less stressed. Here are a few suggestions for how to reduce multitasking habits.

  1. Make a conscious effort to do one thing at a time. Notice when you are multitasking and stop engaging in one of those activities for a while. Examples are not texting while driving (common but extremely dangerous) and no phones during family meals. Instead, set aside some phone-free time to connect with your family or get some rest.
  2. Turn off your cell phone when you are working. Receiving texts or social media notifications throughout a work period is not only disruptive but also counterproductive. Your concentration will be constantly disrupted and the quality of your work will suffer. If you are worried about missing an emergency, set a timer to check your phone at regular intervals throughout your work day.
  3. Close unnecessary tabs and create separate browsers. This is hard for many folks with ADHD. One idea can lead to another and suddenly you have 30 tabs open. Ask yourself  how many open tabs you can handle without feeling overwhelmed. Once or twice a day, reduce your open tabs to that number. If you are worried that you will forget something if the tab is closed, bookmark it for later. Similarly, divide your interests into two browsers: Separating home and work stuff can really lower your multitasking tendencies.
  4. Engage in conversations when you are not distracted by your phone.  It doesn’t feel good to be interrupted by a buzzing phone in the middle of a conversation. Each time you do this, you signal that your phone is more important than the person you’re speaking with. This is especially true when parents turn their attention away from their children and toward their phones. It may look like multitasking but it’s actually dismissive. Notice how paying more attention to the conversation at hand and without interruptions affects your engagement and connection.
  5. Offer times for attention wandering.  Dr. Daniel Goleman, the author of numerous books including Emotional Intelligence and Focus, refers to this as “open awareness.” It’s a way of perceiving your surroundings without getting caught up in the details; allowing your thoughts to wander freely and spontaneously. This wandering attention is how we come up with new ideas, find inspiration, and problem-solve creatively—which is not only useful but quite productive. Youngsters with and without ADHD benefit from having time to do this.

Reducing media multitasking takes practice and persistence and, as you can tell from the introduction above, is something I struggle with mightily. But the benefits are significant: decreased information and emotional overload and improved focus, attention, and memory. Kids (and adults) will be more available for meaningful interactions and present-time engagement. In addition, zooming out and letting our minds wander gives us a break from the constant buzzing of stimulation in today’s world and the pressure to get things done at every moment. In writing this article, I am reminded that, no matter how challenging, a little bit of doing nothing can be better than constantly doing something.

You may also enjoy reading more articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain. You may contact Dr. Sharon Saline at

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