Multitasking is not essential for productivity and it takes a toll on brain health and performance. Learn how to stop multitasking and be more productive.
Albert Einstein is often given credit for the quote, “I fear the day that technology will surpass human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
While there is some doubt as to whether he ever uttered these exact words, there is no doubt that technology is changing our brains — and, it’s generally agreed, not for the better.
One of the biggest concerns is what multitasking does to the brain.
We all multitask to some degree some of the time, but technology keeps pushing the envelope.
The extent of my mother’s multitasking was stirring soup with a corded phone cradled under her ear.
But now it’s not unusual for people to be engaged in several activities at a time.
Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Clifford Nass says, “The top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at once.” (1)
With every passing year it seems like there is more to do and less time to accomplish it.
Multitasking is the only way to get everything done — or is it?
In some surprising ways multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
First, let’s take a look at what actually goes on in the brain when you multitask.
Then we’ll examine seven ways multitasking may be sabotaging your efforts to be productive.
What Happens in the Brain When You Multitask
If multitasking was an important innate skill, you’d think there would have always been a word for it, right?
But before 1965 the word “multitask” didn’t exist.
It was first coined in 1965 when it appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of a new computer system. (2)
During this same decade, psychologists began studying the limits of human ability to process more than one set of stimuli at a time.
Over time, multitasking has become a seemingly necessary skill for staying competitive at work and in contact with friends and family.
It’s essential for preventing a new form of anxiety — FOMO, the “fear of missing out.”
People now pride themselves on their ability to multitask.
It’s not unusual for prospective employees to list “ability to multitask” as one of their best attributes on job applications.
But is it really something to brag about?
Humans are capable of doing two things at a time especially when one of those activities is so ingrained that it can be done on autopilot.
Most of us can carry on a conversation while walking or drink coffee while driving — no problem.
But what we can’t do is learn or concentrate on two things at once.
When the brain is presented with two tasks at once, it quickly toggles back and forth between tasks.
But when your brain receives more information than it can process, an area of your brain called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) takes over. (3)
It acts as a hub for routing new stimuli.
Your pLPFC will line these stimuli up in a queue, rather than trying to handle them simultaneously.
But if this information comes too rapidly, it simply queues up the first two pieces of information and ignores the rest.
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The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking
Humans are in reality serial taskers, not multitaskers.
We don’t actually multitask so much as we attempt to do so.
And we do this at great cognitive cost.
Here are some of the many ways trying to multitask is counterproductive.
1. Multitasking makes you less productive.
Ask anyone why they multitask and they will almost certainly respond “to be more productive” or “to get more done in less time.”
Ironically, it’s been proven over and over again that multitasking has the exact opposite effect.
It’s estimated that multitasking costs the United States’ economy $650 billion annually in wasted productivity. (4)
There’s no doubt that multitasking slows you down.
Every time you change activities it takes time to get back on track.
Experts estimate that switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. (5)
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After an interruption — be it a phone call or deciding to check your email — it can take up to five minutes to get back into the workflow you were in before the interruption.
It might not seem like it but spending blocks of time doing one thing at a time will take you less total time than trying to do two things at once.
This holds true even for driving.
Most people won’t believe this applies to them, but it’s been shown that it takes people longer to drive to their destination if they talk on the phone along the way. (6)
Multitasking doesn’t just slow you down, it also increases the number of mistakes you make. (7)
One study found that subjects given three tasks to perform made three times as many errors as those given only two tasks. (8)
2. Multitasking diminishes your mental performance.
Mental toggling back and forth between tasks takes a toll on cognitive performance.
It results in reduced attention span, learning, and performance. (9)
Multitasking can temporarily reduce IQ by 15 points. (11)
This drop is equivalent to that experienced from smoking marijuana or staying up all night.
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According to Dr. Clifford Nass, the author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, the more you multitask, the less you’re able to learn, concentrate, or be nice to people.
He believes multitasking stunts emotional intelligence and makes us less creative, and studies support this.
Multitasking hinders creative thinking and problem solving ability, making it less likely you’ll come up with good solutions. (12)
Serious multitaskers have less brain density in the area of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional control. (13)
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3. Multitasking makes you a poor judge of your own abilities.
Just as drinking too much alcohol erroneously makes you feel funnier and more attractive, heavy multitaskers also have unrealistic opinions of their skills.
Research shows that those who believe they are excellent multitaskers, in fact, are some of the worst! (14)
Chronic multitaskers had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, making them slower at switching gears.
Compared to infrequent multitaskers they also made more mistakes and remembered less.
4. Multitasking can turn you into a zombie.
Zombie books, movies, video games, and TV shows — you’ll find zombies everywhere.
You’ve probably seen real-life multitasking zombies trying to cross the street or navigate the aisles at the grocery store.
These people who talk or text while walking or driving are a hazard to themselves and others.
The statistics on driving and electronics use are alarming. (15)
- Cell phone use leads to 1.6 million car accidents each year.
- 25% of car accidents are caused by texting.
- Texting drivers are six times more likely to cause an accident than drunk drivers.
According to the RAC Foundation, a British motoring research charity, texting while driving decreases reaction time by 35% while reducing steering control by a horrifying 91%. (16)
This makes texting and driving significantly more hazardous than driving while drunk or stoned.
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Multitasking while walking is almost as hazardous.
Those using electronic devices walk more slowly, weave more, and make more direction changes than those not on cell phones.
Distracted walking causes pedestrians to get hit by cars, fall off bridges, and stumble onto subway tracks. (17)
It’s no wonder when you realize that a pedestrian’s field of vision is reduced by 95% when using an electronic device. (18)
This “inattentional blindness” may explain why 75% of college students on their mobile phones were oblivious to a clown riding by on a unicycle! (19)
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5. Multitasking increases stress, anxiety, and depression.
Research has confirmed what most of us suspect anyway — that trying to do more than one thing at once is stressful.
After only 20 minutes of interruptions, people start to feel significantly more stress, pressure, and frustration. (20)
A University of California study, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” found that people actually worked faster but produced less when their work was constantly interrupted, either by themselves or by others.
Heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol go up when people constantly check their emails. (21)
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Those without constant email access do less multitasking and are less stressed because of it. (22)
Brain scans reveal that chronic multitaskers have less gray matter in their brains, which is linked to depression, anxiety and poor impulse control. (23)
Stress from multitasking doesn’t occur just at work.
Even multitasking for fun, such as playing a video game while watching TV, is linked to anxiety and depression. (24)
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6. Multitasking contributes to premature aging.
Multitasking can contribute to premature brain aging.
Stress of all kinds decreases the length of telomeres — endcaps on your chromosomes similar to plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces.
Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter.
When they reach a critically shortened length, the cell stops dividing and dies.
Telomere length is one of the most significant indicators of cellular aging. (25)
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It may be a better predictor for your risk of getting age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than conventional diagnostic tools.
Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells and longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells.
According to Dr. Elissa Eppel, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, stressful behaviors that shorten telomeres and promote brain cell aging include anything that takes you out of the “now” — dwelling on the past, worrying about the future, exaggerating dangers, and even multitasking.
If you want to learn more about telomeres and aging I recommend Dr. Eppel’s TEDMED Talk What Do Telomeres Tell You About Longevity?
7. Multitasking may qualify as an addiction.
Excessive multitasking meets the criteria of an addiction — you can’t easily quit, you suffer withdrawal symptoms when you try, and you’re aware of the negative consequences but you do it anyway. (26)
When you multitask, your brain is rewarded with a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine when you succeed in obtaining your “fix” — just as happens with other addictions like caffeine, drugs, and alcohol.
This dopamine rush feels good so you want to do it again. (27)
According to Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, Professor of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Music at McGill University, multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and and then finding new external stimulation.
In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Levitin states emphatically that continually checking email, Facebook and Twitter qualifies as an addiction.
Two Simple Antidotes to Multitasking
If multitasking is the problem, what is the cure?
Here are two of the best ways to retrain your brain to diminish your desire to multitask.
The Pomodoro Technique
A ridiculously simple concentration technique named after the tomato works exceedingly well to overcome multitasking.
The pomodoro (Italian for “tomato”) technique was developed by a college student as a study aid.
Here’s how it works.
Pick a task you want to concentrate on and remove any tempting distractions.
Set a timer for 25 minutes then give the task 100% of your attention.
Do not check emails, answer your phone, or surf the net or allow yourself to be otherwise distracted during this time!
You can do that when your 25 minutes is up.
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You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get done working in these short bursts.
But more importantly, you have started to rewire your brain to block out distractions and increase focus for extended periods of time.
I do virtually all of my writing for this blog using this method.
A nice side benefit is that since sitting for extended periods is unhealthy, the ding of the timer acts as a built-in reminder to get up and move around every 25 minutes.
Mindfulness — the state of being totally focused only on the present moment — is the antithesis of multitasking.
Mindfulness meditation is a simple form of meditation that trains your brain to heighten awareness, reduce stress, and increase ability to focus and concentrate. (28)
Training your brain to stay in the present has proven to increase telomere length and slow cell aging. (29)
Whether you are new to meditation or just need a refresher, you’ll find the best ways to develop a successful meditation practice in our meditation guide for beginners.
Multitasking and the Brain: The Bottom Line
Multitasking is not the essential productivity skill it’s made out to be. And it’s not without its costs.
It actually makes you less productive while taking a toll on your mental performance.
It contributes to stress, anxiety and premature brain aging.
Trying to multitask while walking or driving poses some real hazards to your safety.
It can even become an addiction — and who needs that?
Break the habit before it gets out of hand.
Two simple ways to curtail your multitasking are working in concentrated bursts with the help of a timer and practicing mindfulness meditation.