Multitasking Makes You Stupid, Slow and Stressed

We all have so much going on these days – tons of emails, constant texting, back to back meetings, a barrage of phone calls daily and a variety of work tasks to get done on top of it. Add to that all the social and personal pulls and it sums up to one busy life. It’s no wonder we feel the need to multitask. How else can we get it all done?

Multitask Guy

The truth is productivity and intellectual capacity take a fairly significant hit when you multitask. A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that switching what you’re doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%. That’s quite an impact. It seems multitasking makes you slower, not faster. As technologically advanced as the brain is, it can still only process one task at a time. Thus, each time you shift your focus to multitask, you are stopping one brain process and starting another. It’s the equivalent of interrupting yourself and your focus. Microsoft found it took employees 15 minutes to return to their tasks after being interrupted. A different study published in October 2005 showed employees took 20-25 minutes to get back in ‘the zone’ once interrupted. When multiplied over all employees, that can add up to thousands of lost productivity hours per year.

Imagine someone asking you to answer a very complex question while you are trying to make a simple decision on what to order for lunch. Trying to do both at once is tough; our brains need to limit incoming data streams to be most effective. Any time we are in a meeting and trying to respond to emails and texts AND pay attention to the meeting agenda, we are exhausting our brain.

So how does multitasking make you stupid? A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and texting reduces mental capacity by about 10 points on an IQ test. Plus it increases chances for mistakes. Research conducted by scientist Harold Pashler showed that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA student to an eight year old. It’s called dual-task interference. Yet despite thirty years of consistent findings about the drain of dual-task interference, we still multitask.

When our brains are forced to be on alert all the time, it increases something called your brain’s allostatic load, which is reading of stress hormones and other factors relating to a sense of threat. As a result, the brain feels we are in a constant state of crisis which induces stress. When we are stressed, the areas of the brain responsible for logic and cognitive processing have reduced functionality, thus we are not able to think and process as well as we could if we were relaxed. Plus being ‘always on’ takes a toll on the brain because we have a limited amount of working memory and we use it up quickly when we overload the data stream.

So what’s the answer? Not get things done? Let them slide? No. According to David Rock, neuroscience researcher, there are a few solutions.

First, create shortcuts and use repetitive tasks as much as possible when multitasking. Combine your active thinking tasks with automatic, embedded routines. Turns out we can multitask if one of the tasks is routine, like driving while talking on the phone.

Another option is to limit your multitasking. Give yourself a short period of time each day to do multiple things at once and consciously tell yourself when you are going to stop and focus. Turn off distractions like email and your phone for brief periods to enable you to focus without distraction.

Probably the most effective option is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness increases your ability to focus and concentrate because it increases brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Research has shown that multitaskers have less density in the ACC, hence less ability to focus. Plus, mindfulness has a plethora of other benefits like reducing stress, minimizing pain and increasing empathetic awareness.

History shows we ignore the research and still believe we are more productive if we juggle.   Need a way to convince yourself? Next time you are driving and lost, try turning up the radio and see if you can find your way.

Thank you for reading and make it an awesome day!



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