7 Ways Multitasking Hurts Brain Health and Performance

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Multitasking is counterproductive, reduces cognitive performance, and harms your brain and mental health. Learn how to stop multitasking and get more done.

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.” (1)

While there is some doubt whether he ever said these exact words, there is little doubt that technology is changing our brains.

And it’s generally agreed by experts, that it’s 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 demanding activities at a time.

With every passing year, it seems that there is more to do and less time to do it.

Multitasking seems to be the only way to get everything done.

But is it really?

In many ways, multitasking does more harm than good.

Multitasking: A New “Skill”

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.

The term was 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?

What Occurs in the Brain When You Multitask

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.

" Distracted walking causes pedestrians to get hit by cars, fall off bridges, and stumble onto subway tracks.

When the brain is presented with two tasks at once, it quickly toggles back and forth between them.

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 new stimuli come too rapidly, the pLPFC simply queues up the first two pieces of information and ignores the rest.

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7 Ways Multitasking Is Detrimental

Humans are, in reality, serial taskers, not multitaskers.

We don’t actually multitask so much as we attempt to multitask.

And we do this at great cost to our brain health and function.

Here are some of the many ways that trying to multitask is detrimental.

1. Multitasking Makes You Significantly 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 exactly the opposite effect.

It’s estimated that multitasking now costs the global economy $450 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)

After an interruption, it can take up to 30 minutes to get back into the workflow you were in before the interruption. (6)

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. (7)

Multitasking doesn’t just slow you down, it also increases the number of mistakes you make. (8)

One study found that subjects who were given three tasks made three times as many errors as those given only two tasks. (9)

2. Switching Tasks Diminishes Mental Performance

Mentally toggling back and forth between tasks takes a toll on cognitive performance.

It’s mentally exhausting.

It dials up stress and frustration which makes you work harder to get less done.

Interrupting one task to suddenly focus on another results in:

  • reduced attention span
  • decreased ability to learn
  • lowered mental performance

It also disrupts short-term memory — the capacity for retaining pieces of information for short periods of time. (10)

Multitasking can temporarily reduce IQ by 15 points. (11)

This drop is equivalent to that experienced from smoking marijuana or staying up all night.

Strangely, simply being in view of someone who multitasks will lower your comprehension by 17%. (12)

Clifford Nass, PhD is a former professor of psychology and communications at Stanford University. 

He found his students to be seriously distracted, often using four or more media at once. (1)

In his book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, he contends that 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.

Multitasking hinders your ability to problem-solve and think creatively, making you less likely to come up with good solutions. (13)

Frequent multitaskers have less brain density in the area of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional control. (14)

3. Multitasking Makes You a Poor Judge of Your Own Abilities

Just as drinking too much alcohol falsely makes you feel funnier and more attractive, heavy multitaskers similarly have unrealistic opinions of their skills.

Research has shown that those who believe they are excellent multitaskers are, in fact, some of the worst! (15)

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 make more mistakes and remember less.

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4. Multitasking Can Be Dangerous

Today, there are 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: (16)

  • Cell phone use leads to 1.6 million car accidents each year.
  • 25% of car accidents are caused by texting.
  • Drivers who text 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 and reduces steering control by a horrifying 91%. (17)

This makes texting and driving significantly more hazardous than driving while drunk or high.

Multitasking while walking is almost as hazardous.

Those using mobile devices walk more slowly, weave more, and make more direction changes than those not on smartphones.

Distracted walking causes pedestrians to get hit by cars, fall off bridges, and stumble onto subway tracks. (18)

This is no surprise when you realize that a pedestrian’s field of vision is reduced by 95% when using a mobile device. (19)

One research project found that 75% of college students on their mobile phones were oblivious to a clown riding by on a unicycle! (20)

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5. Multitasking Increases Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Trying to do more than one thing at once is indisputably stressful.

After only 20 minutes of interruptions, people start to feel significantly more stress, pressure, and frustration.

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. (21)

Research has found a correlation between email use, stress, and health disorders, including high blood pressure and heart disease. (22)

Those without constant email access do less multitasking and are less stressed because of it.

Brain scans reveal that chronic multitaskers have less gray matter, 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 on a cellular level.

Stress of all kinds decreases the length of telomeres, structures at the end of your chromosomes.

You can liken them to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that help prolong the life and usefulness of the laces.

illustration of telomeres on chromosomes
Telomeres on the ends of chromosomes.

However, every time a cell divides, the telomeres on the end of chromosomes get a little shorter.

When telomeres reach a critically shortened length, the cell stops dividing and dies.

Telomere length is one of the most significant indicators of cellular aging. (25)

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 the atrophy of brain cells, whereas longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells.

According to Elissa Epel, PhD, psychiatry professor at the University of California:

Stressful behaviors that shorten telomeres and promote brain cell aging include anything that takes you out of the “now.” This includes dwelling on the past, worrying about the future, exaggerating dangers, and, of course, multitasking.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating connection between telomeres and aging, I recommend Dr. Epel’s TEDMED talk What Do Telomeres Tell You About Longevity?

7. Multitasking May Morph Into an Addiction

Excessive multitasking meets the criteria for an addiction: you can’t easily quit, you suffer withdrawal symptoms when you try, and you’re aware of the negative consequences of multitasking but you do it anyway.

When you multitask, your brain is rewarded with a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine when you succeed in obtaining your “fix.”

The same thing happens with other addictions like caffeine, drugs, and alcohol.

This dopamine rush feels so good that you want to do it again. (26)

According to award-winning neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and then finding new external sources of stimulation.

In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Levitin states emphatically that continually checking email or social media qualifies as an addiction.

Two Simple Ways to Stop Multitasking

If multitasking is a problem, what is the solution?

The solution is to retrain your brain.

Here are two of the best ways to retrain your brain to diminish your desire to multitask.

The Pomodoro Technique

There is a ridiculously simple concentration technique that works exceedingly well to overcome multitasking.

The pomodoro (Italian for “tomato”) technique was developed by a college student as a study aid.

How the Pomodoro Technique 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, surf the net, or allow yourself to be otherwise distracted during this time!

You can do that after your 25 minutes is up.

You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get done by working in these short bursts.

But more importantly, you’ll 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 website using this method.

Since sitting for extended periods is unhealthy, a bonus side benefit of this technique is that the timer signal is a reminder to get up and move around every 25 minutes.

Mindfulness Meditation

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 increase your awareness of the moment, thereby reducing stress and improving your ability to focus and concentrate.

Training your brain to stay in the present has been proven to increase telomere length and slow cell aging. (27)

Multitasking and the Brain: Take the Next Step

Multitasking is not the essential productivity skill it’s made out to be.

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.

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