The Myth, The Science, and The Alternatives to Multi-Tasking

By Thom Platt, PharmD, PhD

Life as a clinical pharmacist isn’t easy. We’re responsible for reviewing patient charts, rounding with physicians, developing research projects, responding to codes, attending meetings, and preparing lectures. That’s all before lunch! Our more experienced pharmacy colleagues, however, have a simple solution to our newfound workload: Multi-tasking. We all do it. Multi-tasking has long been a lauded skill in pharmacy practice, and technology has enabled us to perform a wider array of tasks at any time. Technology allows us to draft e-mails, text dinner plans to friends, and do a quick PubMed literature search on our phones while we race off to our next meeting across campus. Recent data, however, suggest that multi-tasking is really a misnomer. Our brains are not actually capable of performing multiple processes at once, and instead we shift between tasks.1 In addition to being inefficient, by constantly task-shifting, we are training our brains to rapidly perform quick and easy tasks at the expense of losing our ability to concentrate. This has resulted in a mindset that being productive is a result of appearing busy rather than consistently generating results. As fledgling faculty members, it is important to avoid this counter-intuitive behavior to be truly successful.

The Science Behind Multi-tasking
Beyond the scope of actual productivity, the quality of our work also suffers when we rapidly shift between tasks. In fact, completing simple tasks in our daily lives while distracted can have serious consequences. One study looked at the impact of driving while talking on the telephone. The researchers found that individuals who were on the phone had diminished scores when driving compared to individuals who were not on the phone.2 To further demonstrate the degree of distraction caused by cell phones, the researchers also compared talking on a cell phone while driving, to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%. The researchers found that individuals talking on the phone displayed a greater degree of impairment (slower response times) than intoxicated drivers. Another study compared observational skills of people who were walking while using their smartphones. People who used their phones failed to notice a variety of visual cues.3 The most conspicuous cue was a clown on a unicycle, which 75% of subjects on cell phones did not remember observing. If these simple tasks that we perform on a daily basis are compromised by our inability to focus, then how can we trust ourselves as new practitioners to produce top quality work and ensure we’re safely caring for our patients while task-shifting?

How to Avoid The Pitfalls of Multi-Tasking
The reason we task-shift is because the human brain has a severe aversion to boredom, and in an age where technology makes it easy to jump between tasks. Breaking these habits can be very difficult. So, how can we train ourselves to stay focused on tasks and to be more productive pharmacists? It’s not easy. However, if we start by triaging our tasks, we can set ourselves up to organize our to-do lists, and approach single-tasking with a focused mind. By quickly knocking out the smaller, menial tasks, then we can focus on the truly important things that require more thought and time to fully develop. People who are effective at single-tasking have honed their skills to do just this. They can rapidly concentrate on completing small tasks one at a time and by doing this they find they can dedicate more quality time to the tasks that deserve it.

When you’re ready to truly get to work there are several tips you can try to maintain focus: turn your phone on silent, only check your emails two or three times per day, ensure your desk is clean and cleared of distractions, block off time on your calendar to devote to working on projects, and close your door to ward off distracting visitors. By removing distractions in your environment and utilizing single-tasking, you’ll find you can more easily focus on being truly productive and the quality of the work you do will pay off in the end. The combination of organizing your time and providing sufficient focus to your work are essential steps to effectively utilizing single-tasking.

Task-shifting divides our attention and keeps us from achieving our true potential. By adopting a single-tasking focused mentality you will find you’re getting more bang for your buck, time won’t slip by without any sense of accomplishment, and your supervisors will notice the improvement in your performance. Do you have additional advice for young faculty members that will help them avoid the trap of multi-tasking?

Thank you to Dr. Jeff Cain for his guidance in preparation of this article.


  1. DiGirolamo, G. J., Kramer, A. F., Barad, V., Cepeda, N. J., Weissman, D. H., Milham, M. P., McAuley, E. (2001). General and task-specific frontal lobe recruitment in older adults during executive processes: a fMRI investigation of task-switching. Neuroreport, 12(9), 2065-2071.
  2. Strayer, D., & Drews, F. (2006). Multitasking in the Automobile. In Attention: From Theory to Practice. Oxford University Press.
  3. Hyman, I. E., Boss, S. M., Wise, B. M., McKenzie, K. E., & Caggiano, J. M. (2010). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone. 24(5), 597-607. doi:doi:10.1002/acp.1638

imageThom Platt is a Specialty Pharmacy Administration and Leadership resident at the University of Kentucky. Educational scholarship interests include student affairs, professional development, and pharmacy administration. In his free time, Thom enjoys cooking, reading, and spending time with his son.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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