Multitasking is a desired trait found in most job descriptions. In interviews, candidates are encouraged to express their ability to multitask and be an efficient team player.
In society, you’re overwhelmed by smartphones, television and countless electronic media demanding your attention. Add that to the daily demands of life. How does anyone do it? Multitasking, you’d answer.
Multitasking Costs More Than You Think
Does multitasking cause more trouble than its perceived worth? Multitasking is revealed to lower your productivity and your IQ in multiple studies:
- Even short periods of mental blocks caused by alternating tasks cost up to 40 percent of one’s productivity, according to a study at the University of Michigan’s Brian Cognition and Action Laboratory.
- If you’re immersed in a task, such as writing a report, and an email notification distracts you, know that it can take you up to 15 minutes to become deeply absorbed again in the task, advises Dr. Julia Irwin, a senior lecturer of psychology at Macquarie University. You experience a mental blank or “post-refractory pause” as time fades when your thoughts drift between tasks. Dr. Irwin also found that “When I looked at the literature, there is not a single study in psychology that show that women are better at multitasking.”
- Other studies report evidence against multitasking as a desired skill. The University of London found that those who multitask during cognitive activities had an IQ drop similar to if they’d pulled an all-nighter or smoked marijuana, averaging ten points. Men who multitasked saw drop of 15 points, communicating with the average mental faculties of an eight-year-old. At the University of Sussex, researchers compared the time spent on multiple devices (watching TV while on your laptop) to MRI scans, and they found participants had less brain density in the area of the brain responsible for emotional and cognitive control.
It comes down to the fact that you can’t perform multiple tasks with the same level of skill, especially when you are caught up in a state of mental fog or exhaustion. This type of mental fatigue can cause lapses at work that can be dangerous. The MRI scans from University of Sussex suggest the damage may be long-term, especially if no action is taken to change course. If such habits have been going on for years, it will be challenging to change productivity and multitasking habits. To understand the mechanics of multitasking’s negative effects, you must also understand how the brain processes information.
The Brain Wasn’t Built to Handle All That
While the brain does take in multiple streams of information at once through the senses, it’s only meant to focus on a single task for prolonged periods at a time. It’s just healthier that way.
So, what happens when you multitask? Imagine that you are working on a project for work in a coffee shop. Suddenly, your smartphone buzzes with a new email. So you check it, and decide to check social media, too.
Of course, you need down time. Checking social media may count as a little break for you, but it serves as a serious distraction. Once your mind is locked onto an idea or thought, it’ll obsessively chew on it.
Over the course for a day, your brain cycles much the way it does during sleep. At night, you enter REM and go through 90 minute periods of non-REM sleep. Scientists also found that your brain has a similar cycle while you’re awake, fluctuating states of high and low alertness. It’s important to be aware of and honor these cycles.
Balance Tasks to Be Productive and Healthy
Most people are quick to check an email or text as it appears, and have multiple devices going at the same time. The same approach is taken with daily tasks. There is no true prioritization happening, especially with tasks that require much mental focus. You increasingly put off the task or are easily lured to distraction due to dread of mental exhaustion. You are only putting yourself in a mental block, instead of relaxation.
Balancing tasks requires a little experimentation. Harness productivity with a power hour. Work on a task for twenty minutes, and take a two minute break to do an impromptu dance, or have a glass of water. Then, return to the task or start again.
The twenty minute blocks make the task less dreaded. Of course, you may adapt this power hour and its breaks to your own rhythm, but don’t get carried away on the “breaks.” Let the challenge motivate you, and objectively track how you function.
Multitasking is shown to lower your IQ and may be detrimental to other areas of your life. Understand how your brain processes information, and proactively take advantage of your peaks of alertness, not abuse them or work against them.
You encourage greater productivity when you balance tasks, one by one, to your natural rhythm. You also live truly present within the moment.