Multitasking can reduce productivity, but it might also impact brain health
Multitasking seems like a great way to get a lot done at once. While it might seem like you are accomplishing many things at once, research has shown that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think we are. In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent!
What is it that makes multitasking such a productivity killer?
It might seem like you are getting multiple things done at the same time, but what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down.
Is All That Multitasking Really Making You More Productive?
Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now. Obviously, you are reading this article, but chances are good that you are also doing several things at once. Perhaps you’re also listening to music, texting a friend, checking your email in another browser tab, or playing a computer game.
If you are doing several different things at once, then you may be what researchers refer to as a “heavy multitasker.” And you probably think that you are fairly good at this balancing act. According to a number of different studies, however, you are probably not as effective at multitasking as you think you are.
In the past, many people believed that multitasking was a good way to increase productivity. After all, if you’re working on several different tasks at once, you’re bound to accomplish more, right?
Recent research, however, has demonstrated that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity.
Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing so many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability.
What the Research Suggests
First, let’s start by defining what we mean when we use the term multitasking.
- It can mean performing two or more tasks simultaneously
- It can also involve switching back and forth from one thing to another
- Multitasking can also involve performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.
In order to determine the impact of multitasking, psychologists asked study participants to switch tasks and then measured how much time was lost by switching. In one study conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than when they repeated the same task.
Another study conducted in 2001 by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.
Understanding What the Research Means
In the brain, multitasking is managed by what are known as mental executive functions. These executive functions control and manage other cognitive processes and determine how, when and in what order certain tasks are performed.
According to researchers Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.
- The first stage is known as “goal shifting” (deciding to do one thing instead of another).
- The second is known as “role activation” (changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task).
Switching between these may only add a time cost of just a few tenths of a second, but this can start to add up when people begin switching back and forth repeatedly.
This might not be that big of a deal in some cases, such as when you are folding laundry and watching television at the same time.
However, if you are in a situation where safety or productivity are important, such as when you are driving a car in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical.
Practical Applications for Multitasking Research
Meyer suggests that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks. Now that you understand the potential detrimental impact of multitasking, you can put this knowledge to work to increase your productivity and efficiency.
Of course, the situation plays an important role. For example:
- The costs of switching tasks while texting a friend and watching a football game probably are not going to cause any major problems.
- However, that fraction of a second it takes to change tasks could mean life or death for someone driving down the interstate while trying to find a good radio station or talking on the phone.
The next time you find yourself multitasking when you are trying to be productive, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish. Eliminate distractions and try to focus on one task at a time.
Is Multitasking Bad for Your Brain?
In today’s busy world, multitasking is all too common. Juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities might seem like the best way to get a lot done, but as you have seen, trying to do more than one thing at a time can actually diminish productivity and performance. Focus on one task at a time, many experts suggest, in order to get the job done quickly and correctly.
At any given moment you might be texting a friend, switching between multiple windows on your computer, listening to the blare of the television, and talk to a friend on the phone all at once! When we do get a quiet moment where nothing is demanding our attention, we might find ourselves unable to avoid the distraction of our favorite apps or social media sites.
So while we know that all this distraction and multitasking is not good for your productivity, is it possible that it might actually be bad for your brain health? What impact does such a constant barrage of stimulation have on developing minds?
Multitasking certainly isn’t anything new, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new dimension to the multitasking puzzle.
Research Suggests Multitasking Impacts the Brain
It turns out even people who are considered heavy multitaskers are not actually very good at multitasking.
In one 2009 study, Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass found that people who were considered heavy multitaskers were actually worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details. This is particularly surprising because it was assumed that this is something that heavy multitaskers would actually be better at. But that wasn’t the only problem these high multitaskers faced. They also showed greater difficulty when it came to switching from one task to another and were much less mentally organized.
What was the most frightening about the results, Nass later suggested to NPR, was that these results happened even when these heavy multitaskers were not multitasking. The study revealed that even when these chronic multitaskers were focusing on just a single task, their brains were less effective and efficient.
“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought,” Nass told NPR in a 2009 interview.
So is the damage from multitasking permanent, or will putting an end to multitasking undo the damage? Nass suggested that while further investigations are needed, the current evidence suggests that people who stop multitasking will be able to perform better.
Experts also suggest that the negative impact of chronic, heavy multitasking might be the most detrimental to adolescent minds. At this age, in particular, teen brains are busy forming important neural connections.
Spreading attention so thin and constantly being distracted by different streams of information might have a serious, long-term, negative impact on how these connections form. While this is an area that still requires considerable research, experts believe that teens—those who often engage in media multitasking the most heavily—may be particularly vulnerable to any negative consequences of multitasking.
Minimizing the Negative Consequences
So what should you do to avoid the possible deleterious impact of multitasking?
- According to Nass, limiting the amount of things you juggle at any given time to just two tasks.
- Alternatively, he recommended what he referred to as the “20-minute rule.” Instead of constantly switching back and forth from one task to another, try to fully devote your attention to one task for a 20-minute period before switching to the next task. So, instead of switching back and forth between writing a report for school and doing your math homework, spend 20-minutes on the one assignment before switching to focus your attention on the next.
But Multitasking Isn’t Always a Bad Thing
According to a study by researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, multitasking might not always be all bad. Their work suggests that people who engage in media multitasking, aka using more than one form of media or type of technology at once, might be better at integrating visual and auditory information.
In the study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, participants between the ages of 19 and 28 years of age were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage. The participants then completed a visual search task both with and without and auditory sound to indicate when the item changed color.
Those who were media multitaskers performed better on the visual search when the auditory tone was presented, indicating that they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, these heavy multitaskers performed worse than the light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.
There has been a considerable amount of research to date on the detrimental impacts of multitasking. 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. While multitasking still has its downsides, this research might indicate that our constant exposure to multiple forms of media might have some benefits.
“Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing,” the study’s authors suggested.
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