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How Multitasking Can Actually Make You Less Productive

by kristin bugden - May 24, 2021

There's a good chance that while you're reading this, you might be listening to music, scanning other tabs that you have open, or perhaps on the phone making an appointment. While multitasking appears to be a great way to get a lot done at once, research has revealed that it can actually put quite a damper on productivity and make us less efficient overall. We wanted to find out more, so we got in touch with two neuropsychologists to shed some light on the impact of multitasking on the brain and how we can become more effective at doing one thing at a time — keep scrolling to find out what they had to say.

First things first: What is multitasking?

As Dr. Judy Ho, triple board certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, tenured professor of psychology, podcast/TV host, and Author of Stop Self-Sabotage notes, multitasking is trying to do more than one thing at once or managing multiple different tasks all in the same timeframe (and thinking all the while that you might be more productive this way). She points out that it actually ends up making you less efficient because it puts a strain on your cognitive resources.

So, why exactly is it less efficient?

Even though it may seem like trying to tackle multiple tasks simultaneously is the productive way to go, human brains aren't actually designed to truly multitask where you're concurrently doing two (or more) different things. "What ends up happening in the brain is that since you're rapidly attempting to switch back and forth between tasks, it puts a lot of burden on your cognitive resources, in turn making you less efficient and slower at doing the tasks as opposed to just focusing on one job and getting it done before moving onto the other," explains Dr. Ho. "This causes people to burn out, feel fatigued more quickly, and accomplish less overall."

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist, adds that studies such as this one out of Stanford University have shown that people who believed themselves to be good multitaskers were actually slower at performing tasks and had trouble switching from one task to another. The Stanford study revealed that those who are regularly bombarded with electronic info (like managing multiple emails while texting and jumping from one website to the next) had more trouble recalling information or paying attention compared to those who performed one task at a time.

multitasking productivity

How can constant multitasking affect brain health?

Constant multitasking is essentially seen as a persistent stressor on the brain. “It causes the brain to attend to too many things at once rather than being able to effectively prioritize — this constant stress can raise cortisol levels and lead to the ignition of a fight or flight response that persists longer than is ideal,” notes Dr. Ho. She points out that our human minds and bodies are very good at withstanding significant stress in short spurts, but when this goes on for the entire day or weeks at a time, it can wreak all kinds of havoc on your health.

Dr. Safeez adds that research has uncovered that constant goal shifting takes a toll on the brain, making it harder to filter necessary information and make good decisions — one study even discovered that the brains of heavy media multitaskers had less density in areas that controlled empathy and emotions after running MRI scans on them. 

Any tips on how to be a better monotasker?

It's incredibly easy to get into the habit of multitasking because it can make us feel like we’re accomplishing so much, however, it's worth trying to become effective at tackling one single duty at a time. Since this can be easier said than done, we turned to our experts for some tips. For starters, Dr. Hafeez recommends setting a timer and completing one task before shifting to the next. She adds that you may also wish to start writing out your regular to-do list, even with menial tasks. "Not only does this help put things on paper where you can see them, but allows you to be less anxious about forgetting or dropping the ball on something," she says. "And when starting a task that might take longer than five minutes, consider setting a timer — we often do action items all at once from fear of not getting to them, or running out of time, but you can help minimize both by doing the above."

Dr. Ho also recommends honing in on time management skills and suggests trying out the Pomodoro Technique. "This is a 25-minute time frame where you focus on one singular task without distraction — set a timer to make sure that you don’t go past the 25 minutes, and when the timer goes off, take a brief five minutes away from the task you were doing (if you were working on the computer, do a quick stretch, get up from your desk, listen to your favorite song etc.), then dive back in with another Pomodoro set for 25 minutes on another action item," she explains. She adds that after every three or four Pomodoro sessions, you should aim to take a longer break (like 25-30 minutes or so). "Research shows that this way of working is much more productive, and people feel energized, accomplished, and are way more efficient," says Dr. Ho.

One more handy tip from Dr. Ho is to keep a notepad nearby while you’re focusing on one task. "Your mind is bound to wander, and when it does, instead of distracting yourself completely from the task, just quickly jot down the thought you had on the notepad, and then go right back to what you were working on," she tells Lively. "Later, you can review what you wrote down, and you will notice that some of the things are probably just random musings, while others actually need to be followed up on and added to your to-do list." She mentions that overtime, you'll become much more efficient at removing the thought clutter as you work and you'll likely find you’re distracted less and jotting down fewer items. 

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