It may seem like multitasking is a great way to increase productivity and save you time and energy. However, ongoing research has confirmed that multitasking can have negative effects on levels of productivity and overall brain health in some cases.
As I was working on some images for blog posts yesterday, including this one, I got hungry. So, I started heating my cast iron skillet to make a quick quesadilla. I tossed the tortilla in there to heat up a little, because I like to heat one side then flip it and put on the cheese and other tortilla.
Then I went back to the computer to check email while I waited the minute for it to heat up. Five minutes later, while in midreply to an email, the smoke alarm went off.
Wait, it gets better! I quickly doused the tortilla under water and tried to put it down the garbage disposal. Which then proceeded to clog. And, of course, I made a huge mess in the kitchen unclogging it.
20 minutes wasted because in my rush to be productive and knock out my never ending to-do-list I couldn’t be bothered to stand in the kitchen for one extra minute. And I was still hungry.
The irony was not lost on me.
Multitasking doesn’t work with similar stimuli.
Our brain is not designed to deal with the same stimulus challenge at the exact same time. Listening to music while reading emails provides auditory and visual stimuli. The brain is not conflicted.
Driving a vehicle and texting are both visual stimuli. They are both competing for the same limited focus. Although it appears you are multitasking, you can only be actively engaged with one or the other.
So instead of doing two things at once, you are actually rapidly switching from one to the other, and back again. If your attention is attracted to the phone for a second too long, the job of consciously controlling the vehicle ceases, and catastrophe can follow.
Another example is when you are attempting to listen to multiple conversations around you. It is impossible to listen to two people who are talking to you simultaneously, because your auditory stimulus becomes overwhelmed. Ever feel exhausted at a large dinner with everyone talking around you at once?
Multitasking can harm your memory
If you find yourself multitasking, each task that your mind is engaged in will drain a part of your mental energy. As your mental energy drains, you become more absent-minded. This is because your mind begins to drift.
Even if you could complete the two tasks successfully, you will quite probably not recall how you completed the tasks. This is because our brains do not have the ability to fully focus on two or more tasks at the same time.
Each time you multitask, your mind is trying to perform a juggling act. When you multitask, you are diluting your brain’s investment towards each task.
Multitaskers only THINK they perform better
A study headed by Zheng Wang of Ohio State University showed that people who were text messaging while being asked to focus on the images displayed on a computer monitor had decreased levels of performance.
What makes this finding even more troubling is that the subjects believed they performed better, although the results showed the opposite.
Their ability to focus on images displayed on their computer monitor plummeted up to 50% even though they thought they were performing perfectly. Interestingly, the same study participants were asked to multitask using different stimuli, such as visual and auditory, and were found to have reduced levels of performance as much as 30%.
Professor Wang stated that performance level perception when multitasking is not the same, as the results proved. Researchers have also found that media multitasking increases your risks of developing impaired cognitive control.
The most current research is confirming that multitasking means “performing multiple tasks sub-optimally”.
Unfortunately, in addition to productivity losses, there is a compounding, taxing burden placed on the mental and emotional faculties. This results in accumulated stress, which is already a very real problem for many, if not most, to some degree.
Make a resolution to focus on one task at a time
Although technology today makes it difficult for us to stop multitasking, just make yourself more aware of when it is happening and try to remove the overload on your mind as much as possible.
Make a resolution to focus on one thing at a time for a week. See how much more you accomplish and less stressed you feel.