Here’s When it’s Actually Good to Multitask

Yes, most of the time trying to do more than one thing at a time just means you are doing several things poorly. But there are some exceptions.

Multitasking has a terrible rep in productivity circles. Ever since the “deep work” movement hit the mainstream corporate world, “monotasking” became the gold standard. Multitasking is reportedly detrimental to our brains, causes our IQ to drop, and is one of the biggest time wasters of our era.

However, as long as you don’t adopt this as your overarching work principle, there is a time and a place for it.

Here are some situations when multitasking can help, rather than hinder, your productivity.

When You’re Doing Low-Level Tasks That Require Minimal Attention

Some tasks are tedious and don’t take a lot of brain power, but you have to do them anyway. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University Of California, San Francisco, previously told Fast Company writer Neal Ungerleider that people should block out time to multitask when they have “low-level tasks that require minimal attention, aren’t mission critical, and are boring.” For example, when you’re cleaning your house, you might listen to an audio book or a podcast about a topic you’ve been meaning to learn more about.

When It Motivates You To Do Something Productive

There are some activities that are not motivating to do on their own. For many people, exercise fits into this bucket. But there are plenty of ways to work exercise into your day-to-day routine–such as completing a workout while you’re watching your favorite TV show, or anytime you have a one-on-one meeting with a colleague, make it a walking meeting. In a previous Fast Company article, Laura Vanderkamp also suggested doing “mindless handiwork” like replacing batteries, mending your pants, or stamping letters while you watch a movie on Netflix. You won’t miss the plotline.

When You Need A Different Perspective

Ideally, we’d all be able to train our brains to focus and tackle our big tasks all at once. But as time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders points out, this isn’t always possible. She wrote, “There are actually times when your ‘monotasking’ efforts go too far, or at least go on for too long, and lead to diminishing returns.”

Sometimes, when you’re stuck on a project, the best thing you can do for yourself is stop working on it and switch to something else. As psychology and marketing professor Art Markman wrote for Fast Company, when you are doing work that requires problem solving, you need to “pull information out of your collection of past experience” to come up with a good solution. When this isn’t happening, it’s going to be difficult to steer yourself away from getting stuck in the same line of thinking, again and again. The way to bring some fresh ideas is to do something else entirely. Saunders wrote, “Switching tasks can break your brain out of a focused mode that isn’t getting you anywhere and lead you into a more diffuse mental state–where useful ideas are more likely to shake loose.”

By Anisa Purbasari Horton