Letting go of the need to do it all now
The irony is not at all lost on me that as I sit and write this article on the evils of multitasking for your brain’s health and well-being, I am, ahem … multitasking. My computer’s message bubble pops up and tells me new information about the carpool today, I’m consuming a quick bowl of oatmeal, and I’m listening to the radio to make sure the world is stable for another day.
Stop. Focus. Let it all go. Just do this, and only this. But focusing on just one task is very difficult to accomplish, even if you know it is infinitely better. Maybe we should try this in baby steps. Okay, I will devote a concerted chunk of time to nothing but thinking and writing about the research surrounding our consuming need to multitask. Here’s why:
What is this skill you speak of, and who can do it best?
There are two distinct types of multitasking, and one is significantly harder than the other. The more difficult multitasking skill is the ability to do two or more things at the exact same time. So if you can draw a circle with one hand and a straight line with the other, you are doing this very challenging type of multitasking.
The other and more common type of multitasking is the act of doing multiple tasks in the same period of time, but juggling them back and forth before completing any. This is the kind of multitasking we engage in frequently. We have evolved into proficient togglers. Some studies claim that women are superior toggling multitaskers; some say the science isn’t definitive on this gender difference in skill. But one fact is certain: women do it more. (1) By nature of our societal roles and self-expectations, we multitask through our days far more than our male counterparts.
So what’s the problem wi– SQUIRREL!
Okay, we can throw technology under the bus for this one. We have become always available, always stimulated and used to lightning-speed results. We cram more in a day than ever before, and we may still feel inefficient. We have evolved – and quite well, it should be said – into multitasking maniacs. But many scientists are discovering that we are evolving toward a disturbing collection of brain issues, from anger management difficulties and severe stress in adults to learning problems in children. The act of multitasking often releases stress hormones and adrenaline, and is even linked to increased feelings of rage. (2) The negative side effects are mounting, and we are slowly but surely losing the ability to focus.
But I’m in a hurry!
The pioneer of research on multitasking is Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). (2) He has found that not only does multitasking have negative effects on our brains, but it also makes us less efficient. His studies and those of other researchers show that humans perform worse on tasks requiring brain power when multitasking. An American study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology found that it took students far longer to solve complicated maths problems when they had to switch to other tasks – in fact, they were up to 40% slower. (2) There is a growing body of work that proves that instead of increasing productivity, multitasking makes us less productive because the brain is forced to jump back and forth, unable to simultaneously address two issues at once. This slows the process for each task. (3)
Nothing demonstrates how multitasking impairs cognitive function more powerfully than the abundance of studies surrounding driving while using cell phones. One such study is by David Strayer, PhD, of the Applied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Utah. He presents unambiguous scientific evidence that cell-phone conversations always affect driving performance, and not in a positive way. Human attention has a limited capacity, and even talking on the phone causes a kind of “inattention blindness” to the driving scene.(4)
How do I take the multi out of task?
Let’s face it. The world is not going to slow down and allow us to plod along at our most comfortable pace, focusing on one thing at a time all day long. But we can counteract the negative effects of our compulsive multitasking behaviors. For starters, If you need to spin multiple plates on occasion, there are ways you can reduce the negative effects:
- Meditate. Studies have shown that the practice of meditation will do much to calm and protect the overstimulated toggling brain and can stop compulsive multitasking patterns.
- “Monotask.” Sometimes we multitask out of habit, not necessity. Ask yourself, do I really need to be tuned in to these three things going on when I know that I will be more efficient honing in on this one task without distraction?
- Time it right. Research indicates that we are actually better at this destructive but necessary skill in the morning. If you know you have to tackle multiple problems in one chunk of time, try to do it in the first half of the day. The increase in your stress level will be less and your productivity will be somewhat better. (1)
Read here for additional info on why multitasking doesn’t work
Multitasking and the dangers of distracted driving
Infographic: “Multitasking is making you dumb”
- Stoat G, O’Conner DB, Conner M, Laws KR. Are women better than men at multitasking? BMC Psychology. 2013;1:18
- Naish J. Is multitasking bad for your brain? Experts reveal the hidden perils of juggling too many jobs. DailyMail.com. August 11, 2009.
- Venook, J. Multitasking, texting and distracted driving: Researchers discuss cognitive effects and risks. Journalist’s Resource: Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy. August 12, 2014.
- Driven to distraction. American Psychological Association. February 1, 2006.