How many things have you given your full attention to today? If you’re like most everyone, it isn’t many. And while you might think that you’re doing a great job at keeping 100 balls in the air simultaneously (maybe only dropping a few here or there), the sad truth is that you are probably terrible at multitasking. Just two percent of all people are good at multitasking; these are the rare and unique individuals who can genuinely do more than one activity simultaneously without losing either efficiency or quality. The other 98% of us aren’t focusing on two things simultaneously (the traditional definition of multitasking). Instead, what we are doing is switching our attention from task to task extremely quickly, which isn’t all that impressive. It’s pretty much impossible for the vast majority of us to do things like writing an email while talking on the phone simultaneously.
The more likely we are to think that we are super-awesome at multitasking, the worse we probably perform. People who are the most likely to multitask are unable block out distractions and focus on a singular task. People who multitask tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities, and less capable of multitasking. We are particularly overconfident when we try to do two visual tasks simultaneously, such as driving and texting. In reality, we are slightly better at combining a visual function and an auditory one than we are at connecting two visual tasks. But make no mistake, the vast majority of us are terrible at combining any two tasks, regardless of whether they are visual or auditory.
Unfortunately, even if you can learn while multitasking, you won’t retrieve the information that you learned very quickly. The brain is not able to take in and process two divergent streams of information at one time. The information you’re trying to absorb can’t make it into short-term memory because it competes with other information.
Furthermore, multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. So if you “multitask” for eight hours of the day, you may have just wasted about three hours, and to add insult to injury, you’re probably tired and cranky—fun fact: employees spend 28% of their workweek checking email. Texting is even worse.
Frighteningly, “super multitaskers” have been found to have brains that are less effective and efficient all of the time – even when they aren’t actively attempting to multitask. People who multitask while performing cognitive tasks experienced IQ drops similar to those seen in people who have forgone an entire night of sleep or who have just smoked marijuana. Multitasking can drop a person’s IQ by about 15 points.
Dopamine, the same neurotransmitter involved in all addictions, spikes every time we complete a small task, such as checking our email or Instagram account. That’s why these sorts of functions are sometimes referred to as a “neural addiction.” You are literally addicted to checking email and social media accounts.
People who frequently use several media devices at one time have a lower density of grey-matter in the part of the brain responsible for emotional control and empathy. When researchers placed people in a room that contained both a television and a computer to use for half an hour, the participants switched their eyes back and forth between the two devices about every fourteen seconds. Funny thing, though – they thought that they were only switching back and forth between the two devices about 15 times in half an hour. The reality was ten times as often as they believed.
It’s not just your mental health that is adversely affected by all of this multitasking. Multitasking, or attempting to multitask, increases cortisol levels (a steroid hormone is known as the “stress hormone”) in the body. Paired with epinephrine, cortisol is part of the infamous “fight or flight” response. These two hormones flood the body with glucose, inhibit insulin production, cause the arteries to narrow, increase hunger signals sent to the brain, negatively impacts the immune system, and increase blood pressure. There’s more, actually, but I think that’s enough to make my point.
So, what can you do about this mess? Experts recommend:
- Devoting your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to another job for 20 minutes, rather than trying to do both tasks simultaneously for 40 minutes (40% of which would be wasted).
- Turning off notifications on your phones, computers, etc.
- Checking your email, phone, and social media accounts at specific times of the day, rather than checking sporadically (and way too frequently) all day long.
- Stopping your attempts to multitask in meetings and other social settings. Doing so indicates low self- and social-awareness, both of which are emotional intelligence skills believed to be critical to career success.
- Avoiding multitasking when you are trying to learn something new that you hope to remember.
- Considering mindfulness meditation, which has been linked to lower levels of stress during multitasking and an increased ability to concentrate for a more extended period.
Elaine Hinzey RDN, LD