The truth about multitasking (it’s bad for you)
Being able to juggle multiple tasks at the same time might sound like a great timesaving idea, but it’s not! Multitasking confuses the brain and leads to more stress and mistakes.
Multitasking is an illusion. The brain’s natural limitations mean it can only process a limited amount of information at one time. This is because attention is a limited resource and our brains have limited capacity. Don’t believe me? Try writing a letter and watching TV at the same time. It can be done, but it can’t be done well because neither will command your full attention. So, it can’t be done effectively.
Ever found yourself turning the radio down in the car when you’re trying to find somewhere? QED! People who think they can multitask are actually less efficient at filtering out distractions.
Of course women often claim they can multitask, juggling two or more activities at the same time, but they are fooling themselves. Multitasking can ruin productivity, disrupt creative thoughts and increase the chances of making more mistakes than you would if you were able to just focus your attention on one thing at a time.
The brain works more efficiently when it’s allowed to focus. That means making time to do important things, eliminating distractions, and turning off your smartphone! Even taking a short break can refresh the brain and a minute of exercise (a quick walk around the garden is good) can increase blood flow to the brain, helping you to think more clearly.
The way the brain perceives information about the world is the result of millions of calculations carried out simultaneously in the most complex structure in the known universe.
Imagine your consciousness laid out on a giant cinema screen with lots of different thoughts all competing for attention. Your sense of sight provides the main sensory input for lots of vital information that is then processed by your brain. Your eyes dart about making small movements called saccades as they scan visual information, with a small patch of sharp focus in the centre. When the information is processed in the visual cortex, the sharp focus images are knitted together, and the brain fills in any gaps and creates a seamless stream. But when we try to manage more than one task at a time the brain has to make a series of shifts. This happens even though we might feel our thought processes are seamless.
Even something seemingly straightforward, such as stopping work to take a phone call can derail the existing process, even though the interruption may only be for a few moments. The brain has to stop focusing on working, switch to listening, and then back to working. But when the brain returns to the first task, it needs more energy to get back into the flow. This increases the chances of making mistakes. Likewise, the effect of background noise, especially meaningful conversation in the office or on the radio, can be distracting and affect concentration.
But why are our brains are so drawn to a habit which has such negative effects on productivity?
One reason may be because of how our brains evolved. At some point in the past, being able to pick up any new sight or sound may have helped us to recognise and avoid danger, thus offering an evolutionary advantage and saving our lives. But this same adaptation could have the opposite effect today. In today’s modern society our lives are rarely in danger, but the ceaseless onslaught of information has the potential to trip us up. Our brains are simply not equipped to handle sensory overload.
Some experts, including Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have suggested that completing small tasks, such as replying to an email, are easy ‘wins’ that give a small sense of accomplishment, and these pleasant feelings can then become addictive. This makes perfect sense because many people get a sense of satisfaction when they accomplish small tasks.
A study carried out at the University of Cambridge and published in 2011, points to behavioural comparisons in rats. When the animals were trained to push a lever a set number of times to receive food, they got food when they were hungry and spent the rest of the time grooming, foraging and exploring their enclosure. But when they learned they had to press the lever a random number of times – such as twice the first time and thirty times the next time – the animals switched to being consumed by the quest for food. Scientists believe an element of this may be present when people scan their emails.
It may be difficult to persuade people to give up multitasking because it has always been thought to lead to better productivity, but we now know the opposite is true. The trick is to remove the temptation to engage in more than one task at a time. That might be the only way to overcome the brain’s unwavering thirst for new information.
Now for the very bad news… multitasking can cause untold damage to your mental health and wellbeing. Seriously! Before you dismiss this, you need to read the following:
Research carried out at the University of London shows that multitasking can actually lower your IQ. This may be hard to believe as one would think multitasking would exercise and therefore improve intelligence. However, participants who multitasked during experimental cognitive tasks experienced declines in their IQ scores that were similar to those experienced after smoking marijuana or staying up all night. IQ test reductions of around 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to that of the average 8-year-old.
Worse, it has long been believed that any cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but the latest research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex (UK) compared the amount of time people spent on multiple devices – such as texting while watching TV – with MRI scans of their brains. They found people that multitasked a lot had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.
More research is needed to determine if multitasking really is physically damaging the brain (as opposed to existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask) but it’s clear that multitasking has negative effects.
According to neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of physical brain structure.
Finally, it’s generally accepted that fiddling with your phone or tablet while in conversation is rude, although it seems more acceptable amongst teenagers and younger adults because it’s becoming a social-cultural behavioural norm.
Psychologists believe that multitasking in meetings and other social settings indicate low self-esteem and social awareness, two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are critical to success at work. I’m not so sure about low self-esteem, but poor awareness of traditional social norms would be spot on.
90% of top performers have high EQ’s, but if multitasking does indeed damage the anterior cingulate cortex – a key brain region for EQ – as current research suggests, it will lower your EQ at the same time it’s alienating your colleagues. Oh dear. You’re fired.