One More Way That Work is Killing You: The Dangers of Multitasking

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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 really great job at keeping 100 balls in the air simultaneously (maybe only dropping a few dozen here or there), the sad truth is that you are probably terrible at multitasking. In fact, just two percent of all people are good at multitasking; these are the rare and unique individuals who are truly able to do more than one activity simultaneously without losing either efficiency or quality. In fact, the other 98% of us aren’t focusing on two things at one time (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 at the same time.

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 aren’t doing so because they have the ability, but because they are actually less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task. In fact, people who multitask tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities, and less capable of multitasking. We are particularly erroneously 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 task and an auditory one than we are at combining two visual tasks. But make no mistake, the vast majority of us are really bad at combining any two tasks, regardless of whether they are visual or auditory.

Unfortunately, even if you are able to learn while multitasking, you won’t be able to retrieve the information that you learned very easily. The brain is not able to take in and process two divergent streams of information at one time, and if the information you’re trying to take in can’t make it into short-term memory because of competing information, it sure as Hell isn’t going to make it into long-term memory.

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 of time, 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 multitasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced IQ drops similar to those that are seen in people who have forgone an entire night of sleep or who have just smoked marijuana. In fact, multitasking can drop a man’s IQ by about 15 points.

Dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that is involved in all addiction, spikes every time that we complete a tiny task, such as checking our email or Facebook accounts. That’s why these sorts of tasks are sometimes referred to as a “neural addiction”. You are literally addicted to checking email and social media accounts. If it sounds like that’s not a good thing, it’s because that is most certainly not a good thing.

People who frequently use several media devices at one time have lower grey-matter density 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 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 levels of cortisol (a steroid hormone 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:

  • Fully devoting your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to another task 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.
  • Having specific times of the day that you check your email, phone, and social media accounts, rather than checking sporadically (and way too frequently) all day long.
  • Completely stopping your attempts to multitask in meetings and other social settings, because 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, as well as an increased ability to concentrate for a longer period of time. Even better, mindfulness has been correlated to people switching tasks less often while taking no longer to complete the overall job.