Managing Your Practice

The multitasking myth


Physicians tend to be compulsive multitaskers. We switch from one task to another all the time – even in front of patients. We think we are more efficient and productive, and that we are accomplishing more in less time. In fact, there is no credible evidence that this is true, and a mountain of evidence showing exactly the opposite.

According to this study and others, multitasking results in an average of 2 hours per day of lost productivity. It decreases the quality of work performed and increases cortisol levels, which impedes cognitive functioning, leading to a further decrease in productivity in a vicious cycle, making you increasingly ineffective and destroying your motivation and mood.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

On the surface, the reasons for this are not intuitively obvious. After all, simple and routine tasks are easy to perform simultaneously; we can all walk and chew gum at the same time or eat a snack while watching TV. The problems arise when we try to multitask more complex tasks that require thought and decision-making.

It turns out that the pressures of our modern world have evolved faster than our brains. We are still hard-wired for monotasking. When we think we are completing two tasks simultaneously, we are actually performing individual actions in rapid succession. Each time you switch tasks, your brain must turn off the cognitive rules of the previous task and turn on new rules for the next one. When you switch back, the process repeats in reverse. Each of those mental gear shifts takes time and costs us productivity. According to one psychologist, even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. We are also far more likely to make mistakes while we are doing it.

Furthermore, you are stifling your creativity and innovation because you don’t focus on one task long enough to come up with original insights. Multitasking also slows down your general cognitive functions, in the same way that keeping many windows are open on your computer slows down the entire system. A study from my alma mater, the University of California, San Francisco, concluded that multitasking negativity affects memory in both younger and older adults (although the effects were greater in older adults) .

So, what to do? The fact remains that, all too often, there really are too many tasks and not enough hours in the day. How can you get through them without falling into the multitasking trap?

The first rule is to prioritize. In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey makes an important distinction between tasks that are important and those that are merely urgent. Tasks that are important and urgent tend to make time for themselves, because they must be taken care of immediately.

Jobs that are important but not urgent are the ones we tend to try to multitask. Because there is no immediate deadline, we think we can do two or more of them simultaneously, or we fall into the other major productivity trap: procrastination. Neither of those strategies tends to end well. Identify those important but not urgent tasks and force yourself to go through them one by one.

Urgent but unimportant tasks are the productivity thieves. They demand your attention but are not worthy of it. Most tasks in this category can be delegated. I have written about physicians’ workaholic and perfectionist tendencies that drive our conviction that no one else can do anything as well as we can. Does that unimportant task, even if urgent, really demand your time, skills, education, and medical license? Is there someone in your office, or possibly an outside contractor, who could do it just as well, and maybe faster?

In fact, that is the question you should ask every time a project triggers your urge to multitask: “Who could be doing this job – or at least a major part of it – instead of me?”

If your multitasking urges are deeply ingrained – particularly those that involve phones, laptops, and the cloud – you might consider employing electronic aids. SelfControl, for example, is a free, open-sourced app that lets you block your own access to distracting websites, your email servers, social media, or anything else on the Internet. You list the sites you wish to block and set a period of time to block them. Until the set time expires, you will be unable to access those sites, even if you restart your computer or delete the application.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at

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