Home All Training Wheels for Compulsive Multi-Taskers

Training Wheels for Compulsive Multi-Taskers

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 August 2009

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

769 words, 3.5 minutes reading time.

Compulsive Multi-Tasker

Compulsive Multi-Tasker

We all know one. Someone whom you are sure to find busy on two phone lines and on email simultaneously whenever you walk into his office. His desk is full of paperwork through which he scrambles furiously when he needs information he can’t remember, which is often since he’s so busy multi-tasking that he may not be able to register much. In case he ever gets bored, a muted flat screen shows the news right in front of his desk, which he checks quickly as he greets you. His typical answer after you’ve announced the reason for your visit is “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Can you say it one more time for me?”

Exercise Wheel

I’d like to suggest a reality check for such compulsive multi-taskers.

Exercise Wheel

Exercise Wheel

Since the brain can only actively process one source of information at a time, and since switching from one activity to another requires a brief second (sometimes two!), researchers have shown that going back and forth between multiple tasks actually increases the total time needed to perform them.

Equally significant, constant shifting makes no room for real engagement. The compulsive multi-tasker’s main drive is the desire to finish one thing to get on to the next – much like a hamster on an exercise wheel, minus the health benefits. The more we practice this type of mental racing, the better we get at it, and the more difficult continuous focus becomes. Lack of engagement also makes no room for work satisfaction and may drain out energy early in the day.

To top it all off, a compulsive multi-tasker’s brain is like a stress hormone manufacture. With no room for compensating interludes of peacefulness, the steady supply of cortisol and adrenaline can make multi-taskers hyperactive, impatient, irritable and, insensitive to others. (See Wayne Jencke’s article for more information on stress and Amanda Horne’s article on toxic work.) Not a pretty picture.

Training Wheels

What if you agree with the disadvantages of multi-tasking, but aren’t sure how to stop. Before the vacation season ends and the rhythm of work accelerates again, perhaps you’ve chosen a good time for a healthy dose of balance and focus. Here are some quick tips – training wheels – for how to start battling compulsive multi-tasking:

  1. Address the issue. A lot of multi-taskers think their busyness testifies of how important and successful they are, and they don’t consider it can also signal poor task and energy management skills. Have the present article circulate at your office. People know when a label resonates with them. If you’re asking yourself whether you are compulsive at this, the question itself is a good hint.

  3. Remember the benefits of taking breaks. Far from a luxury you can’t afford, breaks help recharge your energies, keep those stress hormones under control, and improve your mood and productivity upon your return.

    Zen at Work

    Zen at Work

  5. Take a Deep Breath. The body’s natural response to stress is to contract your muscles, a reaction that impedes the full expansion of your lungs. Less oxygen circulating to your brain diminishes your ability to think effectively, be poised and productive. By voluntarily taking a few deep breaths, you can replenish your oxygen supply and get back in control.
  6. Initiate walk and talk meetings. Walking not only activates your blood flow and breathing, but it also facilitates the production of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good hormones that fight the negative effects of stress.
  7. Practice mindfulness. Let me quote my colleague and PPND author Kirsten Cronlund on this: “mindfulness… enables the practitioner to choose carefully from many possible emotional, intellectual, and circumstantial inputs, to act wisely, and not be ruled by the less adaptive immediate responses that are often triggered during times of stress.”
  8. Savor Accomplishments. We are constantly bombarded with new information to process, projects to tackle and clients to call. As a result, we race to the next thing and don’t take the time to experience the satisfaction of closure, to savor (the optional theme for this month). To generate a more natural rhythm, initiate a ritual for celebrating accomplishments – it can be the end of each contract, campaign, deadline, even the end of each month. Recognize the importance of periodically looking back to see how much you’ve accomplished.

In New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Full Engagement, authors Loehr and Schwartz write: “It is in the spaces between work that love, friendship, depth and dimension are nurtured. Without time for recovery, our lives become a blur of doing unbalanced by much opportunity for being.”

If you are anything like me, you’ll agree that friendship, depth, and dimension are all important characteristics to look for in business partners. Restless, unfocused, and irritable characters, not so much.




Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press. (Added later).

Rights to the pictures were purchased by the author on istockphoto.com for the sole purposes of this article.

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Brittney Asch 9 November 2009 - 7:50 pm

I really enjoyed your article! While I don’t think I’m quite the extreme multi-tasker you were using as an example, I do have a lot of things going on at once usually. I do find that when I focus on one thing at a time, I am more productive and finish the task quicker. Do you know where I might find more research on how multi-tasking is less productive? Thank you! ~Brittney Asch

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 16 November 2009 - 12:00 pm

Hi Brittney!

Glad you enjoyed my article, and very happy it prompted you to think about multi-tasking in a new way! You see, in today’s environment, multi-tasking is quite glamorized. Job offers often mention that one of the required skills for the position is the ability to multi-task. Because we now see it as so essential, we tend to do too much of it, even when it’s not necessary. That’s the danger I wanted to expose in my article.

If you’d like to read more research on it, see this article from Stanford University which shows the mental toll of multi-tasking: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html.

And here’s another good read, from Time magazine: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147199-1,00.html.



Kendra 19 November 2009 - 6:33 pm


I also enjoyed reading this article! I was wondering though, does the same thing apply for multi-taskers at home or is this just for multi-tasking at work? I know for myself, I am not a big multi-tasker at work but when I get home it’s a completely different story! Since you dont have your boss breathing down your neck is it different?

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 19 November 2009 - 10:48 pm

It may or may not be – it all depends on how much concentration is required for each task you are multi-tasking.

So for example, if you are cleaning the house while talking on the phone with a family member, that is fine since neither requires too much focus. However, if you are trying to read a work report while watching TV, then you’re really doing 2 things that require your full attention at once (TV requires more focus than we realize since it’s short segments go much faster than real life). Chances are you will need more total time to read your report and you will remember less information. Equally important, reading and TV watching at the same time will train your brain to work in very short segments. If you do not compensate with longer, more focused concentration periods, overtime your ability to stay on task can be impeded.

Hope the clarification helps!


Liz 30 June 2011 - 5:46 pm

Thanks for the insight! I am working on getting rid of this bad habit as I have lately realized how much it affects my productivity.


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