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Octopods are amazing animals and fascinate most of us. They are brilliant and capable of learning, can change their color, and there is one point where they are definitely superior to humans: With their eight arms, they can carry out various activities simultaneously.

How cool would it be if we could read a book with our right arm and write a report with our left? Or playing the piano on the right and tennis on the left?
While the information processing of the octopus is decentralized and separate from each other in the respective arm, we humans ‘only’ have one brain. That’s where all incoming stimuli are processed, and actions are controlled. And that clearly distinguishes us from the octopus and explains why driving AND being on the phone don’t work.

But let’s take a closer look at the underlying reasons.

What Happens In The Brain When Multitasking?

Suppose you are sitting at your computer reading an email. You perceive the individual letters, combine them into words and sentences, and finally attach meaning to them in the brain. This complex process takes place in our working memory. The incoming information is temporarily stored for a few seconds and then processed. In the first step, the amount of data we can handle depends on the working memory span, comparable to the storage capacity of a computer chip.

If now, while reading the email, your assistant asks you whether she can confirm the appointment tomorrow at 3 p.m., your working memory will receive new information that must be saved and managed too. The cognitive challenge now consists of focusing on the relevant information while suppressing the disruptive stimuli. A bottleneck effect occurs with two complex tasks because the brain cannot simultaneously process too many stimuli.
Your attention is focused on one task while the other is interrupted and will be resumed when the first task is completed. So if you read your email and think ‘at the same time’ about whether the appointment will fit tomorrow, it may appear to you as if you are doing both concurrently, but that is not true.
Instead, your brain processes small portions of each task while constantly switching between them. And this increases the cognitive load.

What Are The Consequences Of Multitasking?

Disturbances and interruptions are not uncommon in both professional and private everyday life and often force us to stop a task at short notice. However, you should resist the temptation to ‘keep several balls in the air’. Multitasking is only possible to a limited extent.


If you do many things concurrently, your performance is up to 40% worse: the frequency of errors is higher, and it takes longer to complete each task.


Besides, switching between tasks increases the cognitive load and can rapidly lead to excessive demands.

Especially with complex jobs and activities requiring a high concentration level, interruption leads to stress. The heart rate rises, breathing becomes faster, and stress-related hormones are released. If stress persists, the affected person has an increased risk of getting sick.
A decreased ability to concentrate or sleep disorders, high blood pressure, headaches, back pain, and psychological disorders (burnout, depression) can result.


Plus, work interruptions lead to negative emotions such as anger, rage, sadness, and even loss of control or reduced job satisfaction. You are dissatisfied because nothing is accomplished.


However, interruptions have a positive effect in the case of very monotonous tasks. You will welcome any disturbance as an enjoyable break; they will even enhance your performance.

The interruption grows the cognitive load by increasing the aspiration level of the dull task. And this is very pleasant.
Who is not happy when receiving a disruptive phone call while sorting a pile of tax documents?

Under certain conditions, multitasking is, therefore, quite feasible and also beneficial. Let’s take a look at what these are now.

When Is Multitasking Possible?

Simultaneous processing is no problem for simple and automated tasks. That is undoubtedly one reason why some people still believe that they are more productive if they do as much as possible at the same time. All activities that do not require conscious attention hardly use our working memory and can be completed along the way.
Throughout our lives, we learn to carry out simple, repetitive tasks. Our brain sets up various schemes, which we automatically execute as soon as the related situation occurs. You don’t need conscious attention, and the cognitive effort is relatively low.

Driving a car is a perfect example. Do you remember your first time – alone in the car? Which gear do you have to choose and when, plus pressing the clutch and setting the indicators. Well, I think I was drenched in sweat. And today, I’m very relaxed while driving and able to listen to the news (of course, it only works if you don’t go across Palermo).
After decades of practice, the sequences of actions are processed automatically, and ‘conscious thinking’ is no longer necessary. In this case, multitasking is working – but only then.

Take Away

  • The simultaneous processing of several complex tasks is not possible.
  • Instead, both tasks are alternately processed in small steps, one after the other.
  • Multitasking quickly leads to overload, decreased performance, and stress.
  • Those who experience stress frequently endanger their health.
  • Multitasking is possible when performing simple, automated tasks.

How do you deal with multitasking? What are your experiences? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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What happens when we focus on multiple things at once? Take part in this little experiment and watch the video.

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Andrea Seekatz

I'm a trained & certified coach (ICF) and psychologist. Don't forget: Take Care of Your Self.

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