This New Research Will Put You Off Multitasking For Good

It's not just inefficient, it's changing the way your brain is wired.
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It's not just inefficient, it's changing the way your brain is wired.

Lately I’ve been waking up, looking at my to-do list, and concluding that there are simply too many things to do in a day.

I have three children 5 and under. I do freelance work part time from home. I also try to work out a few times a week, read for pleasure, knit, co-lead a couple of ministries at church . . . oh, and I’ve heard sleeping is a good thing to do every now and then.

It seems that the only way to get it all done is to do a few things at once. I used to pride myself on being able to multitask. “No, really,” I’d tell my husband when he was trying to tell me something while I typed an email on my phone. “I’m listening.” Kind of . . .

My motto used to be ‘I can do this.’

If I’m anything like the subjects in this Stanford University study, however, my confidence is a ruse. Researchers found that those who thought they were great multitaskers “performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another” than those who preferred to work on one task at a time.

The oft-harried state of my brain during a work session is proof I fall in the former group. I delude myself into thinking I’m making progress when I’m really wasting time.

In a similar study at the University of London, subjects who multitasked during cognitive tests registered drops in IQ equivalent to missing a night of sleep or smoking marijuana. I’m not getting enough sleep as it is!

Why do I multitask if it’s not effective?

Research from Ohio State University showed that multitasking makes us feel better, even when we’re not getting more accomplished. When I’m multitasking, it’s usually because I’m tired or stressing about something. My secondary task is rarely, if ever, related to the primary one. I’ll check my email for a note from a friend or search for a new pair of jeans on a secondhand site. These are comforting and entertaining—they make me feel good.

The study suggests that it’s because we feel better when we’re multitasking that we keep allowing ourselves to be distracted. In theory, we know that relying on devices for warm fuzzies can be dangerous. But when it seems like everyone else is clicking and tapping away, and with so many opportunities for a quick fix at our fingertips, it can be hard to say no.

It’s not just about me.

As I dug deeper into my research, I discovered more and more evidence that I was mistaken to consider my divided attention a virtue. A study of Canadian university students showed that multitasking doesn’t just harm those doing it; it harms the people around them, too. Those who multitasked during a lecture scored poorly on a test afterward. But so did students who observed the multitaskers, i.e. the students in the rows behind the ones checking their email during class.

University professor Tania Lombrozo said it well: “The effects of technology-based multitasking could be especially pernicious because we don’t realize how detrimental [it is] to us.”

Multitasking could be changing the physical structure of our brains. 

The kicker is that United Kingdom studies suggest there is at least a correlation between multitasking and “less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.”

At the moment, it’s a case of the chicken and the egg. More research is needed to show whether the damage is a result of multitasking or those with the damage are more likely to multitask. Either way, it’s bad news. My ability to connect and relate to others is too high a price to pay to complete my lengthy to-do list.

Obviously, I need to break the cycle and commit to focusing on one task at a time. But how?

To start, I’m becoming more aware of myself when I’m reaching for my phone to check for a text because I feel stuck. I avoid switching browser windows in my research to look for something new. What am I really looking for? Is it worth the cost of taking away my focus from the information I have at hand?

To my mind, discipline is an undervalued virtue in our day. Instant gratification is everywhere. Yet I think most people would agree that reaching a goal through patience, determination, and hard work is much more satisfying than having something lucky or short-lived come your way.

Last year, I saw how a bit of exercise each morning helped me sit up straighter. Counting the glasses of water I drank every day helped my skin clear up. So it can be with disciplining myself to stay on the task at hand when I’m tempted to stray. If I can recognize what I’m looking to gain—a warm, albeit brief, emotion—and realize it’s not the end goal, I’m more motivated to stay on track and do the work that is wholly satisfying in the long run.

I’m also realizing that the various elements of my life can’t be compartmentalized. The way I eat affects the way I sleep. The way I sleep affects the way I approach my day, which in turn affects my focus, be it playing Legos, folding laundry, or writing this article. When I make maintaining balance in the other areas of my life a priority, work tasks fall more easily into place.

There are myriad “solutions” out there to getting it all done, from the four-hour workweek to the four-day workweek. For some people, they will be lifesavers. But I’m not interested in another program. I know I have the skills and the knowledge I need to take care of what’s important to me. The next step is to put it to better—and more concentrated—use.

For me, the happy alternative to multitasking is keeping it simple: Live each day one focused moment, one glorious task, at a time.

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