What we call multitasking is really task-switching.
When you’re trying to juggle what seems like a million responsibilities, multitasking might seem like a necessary evil. But research shows that multi-tasking or switching tasks, can actual cause more harm than good.
Each time we try and batch unrelated tasks together, we tax our brain and use up energy in the transition. The more complex the tasks we are switching between, the higher the cognitive cost. Yes…our brains suffer.
In today’s society, doing just one thing at a time seems downright luxurious – bordering on lazy or wasteful. But chances are, you’re not doing yourself (or your boss, or your friends and family) any favors by multitasking your way through the day.
Research shows that it’s not nearly as efficient as we like to believe and can even be harmful to our health. Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than performing a single task – one at a time.
During a 2014 study, brain scans of the participants indicate that the prefrontal cortex quickened its ability to process the information, enabling the individuals to perform tasks (related to the same goal) more efficiently.
Multitasking (unrelated tasking) reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two different things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully. Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. Ouch!
Moving back and forth
between several tasks actually wastes productivity, because your attention is
expended on the act of switching gears—plus, you never get fully “in the zone”
for either activity.
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. In fact, it will probably takes longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately.
“What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches,” says a researcher on multitasking. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.” People who switch between tasks tend to lose time and have problems staying on task, which has a negative impact on both productivity and performance
“When it comes to
attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.
“It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”
Experts estimate that switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. It can also cause you to introduce errors into whatever you’re working on, especially if one or more of your activities involves a lot of critical thinking.
When University of California Irvine researchers measured the heart rates of employees with and without constant access to office email, they found that those who received a steady stream of messages stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant email access did less multitasking and were less stressed because of it. And it’s not only the physical act of multitasking that causes stress; it’s the consequences. The mistakes you make and the extended time it takes to complete the task.
Most will agree that if you try to do two things at once—read a book and watch television, for example—that you’re going to miss important details of one or both. But even interrupting one task to suddenly focus on another can be enough to disrupt short term memory, according to a 2011 study.
Multitasking requires a lot of what’s known as “working memory,” or temporary brain storage, in layman’s terms. And when working memory is all used up, it can take away from our ability to think creatively, according to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago. With so much already going on in their heads, researchers suggest, multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate the spontaneous “a ha moment.”
Missing out on life?
Forget seeing the forest
for the trees or the glass half full—people who are busy doing two unrelated things
at once don’t even see obvious things right in front of them, according
to a 2009 study from Western Washington University.
Specifically, 75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this “inattentional blindness,” saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was registering in their brains.
For many years, it was thought that people who multitask, or perform more than one activity at once, had an edge over those who did not. However, research now suggests that multitasking can actually make learning less effective.
On their own, these multi-tasking habits might seem harmless. But if you do them repeatedly, they can ruin your cognitive function in ways you don’t realize.
To save your brain, develop new habits to replace the multitasking habit.
Start by focusing your attention on the task at hand and continue working for a predetermined amount of time.
Pay attention next time you find yourself performing many tasks at one time. Ask yourself if there’s a better habit that can go in its place.
Your brain will be happy and thank you.