Today’s society is used to doing more than one thing at a time, but is multitasking bad? With the advent of so many technologies, it’s common to see people working at a laptop with their personal and work cellphones at the ready. Perhaps they’ve got a podcast or audiobook on, too, or are watching the news to keep up on industry news or politics.
Whew! It’s exhausting just to read about that situation. However, this is the way many people live and work all day long. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier and more streamlined. Instead, it makes us overwhelmed, and we are expected to do more in the same amount of time.
Recent research out of Stanford shows that constant multitasking is stressful. It promotes negative moods and keeps motivation and productivity low.
Our brains aren’t evolved enough to keep up with the steady influx of information from all streams of technology. When people are bombarded with information from multiple sources all at once, their brains struggle to process everything effectively.
This creates a lack of productivity and inefficiency for multiple reasons. These include:
- Memory retention – Humans can’t remember information as well when they are taking in tidbits from multiple sources all at once.
- Attention span − Concentration begins again each time someone’s attention goes from one information source to another. This decreases brain power and energy.
- Switching tasks − Even something as simple as typing away at a document and then answering a quick text causes a break in the thought process.
So, why do we multitask and how do we stop? Let’s explore.
Why We Know Multitasking Is Bad for You
There are plenty of reasons why people began multitasking in the first place. The advent of modern technologies and appliances took over plenty of work and we expect ourselves to do more in their place. However, more isn’t always better.
Your Brain Can’t Keep Up
It’s often toted as a positive quality to “successfully” complete multiple tasks at once. However, your brain is truly only capable of focusing on one thing at a time. So, when you timeshare more than one activity, each isn’t getting your full attention.
How many times have you met someone new and then instantly forgotten their name? You were probably focused on something else, such as what you were going to say to answer a question, the task you were pulled away from, or something happening on the other side of the room.
People talk about the importance of being present. It doesn’t feel good to have someone’s attention broken when you’re talking to them, right? If they are looking at their phone, have the other eye on the TV, or are wrapped up in their thoughts, you don’t feel seen or heard.
Instead of trying to keep up with more than one thing at a time, try to put forth your whole effort. If you must redirect, ask for a moment to finish your task so you can concentrate fully on the next one. This shows respect and value for the person or thing you’re attending to.
Multitasking Equals Multi-Mistaking
It makes perfect sense that the less focus you apply to something, the more mistakes you make. When you try to take in multiple streams of information at once, your brain struggles to filter out what’s important and what’s not. This means that your brain goes haywire, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Synapses cross-fire, focus overlaps, and mistakes abound.
Sometimes, these mistakes might not seem like a big deal. Maybe you put away the leftovers on the wrong shelf in the fridge or you switch your kids’ pajamas when putting laundry away. Or it could be something more catastrophic such as replying-all to a company email when you simply had a deeply personal matter to discuss with your boss.
If you don’t want to deal with the effects of multitasking mistakes, keep your focus on one task at a time. You still complete what needs to be done. Sure, it takes a few more minutes overall, but the quality is worth it. Plus, you don’t have to go back and fix something later!
Multitasking Dampens Memory, It Doesn’t Improve It
You might think that you’re helping your brain stay active and fit when you ask it to keep up with multiple tasks at once. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Multitasking hampers short-term memory. This is never a good thing, especially because as we age our short-term memory gets worse on its own.
If you are holding yourself to certain expectations now and your memory is struggling to keep up, think about how hard it will be to perform the same level of tasks in the future. Instead, cultivate healthy habits and boundaries so that you can keep living well.
Anxiety as a Side Effect of Multitasking
Anxiety seems to be related to everything in our society. For any type of task, relationship, or activity, you probably know someone who says that it gives them anxiety.
Anxious feelings create a great deal of mental and emotional stress, which often present in physical ways, such as:
- Elevated heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Chronic pain
When you have access to multiple streams of technology, information, or tasks, your attention is constantly pulled in varying directions about what you should be doing. For example, every time you pick up your phone you have those little red numbers encouraging you to check your email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. What should you do first, how long should you spend, and what was the reason you even picked up your phone in the first place?
It’s no wonder this type of lifestyle creates anxious feelings. Our heart rates go up, our emotions are wired, and we feel overstimulated at the slightest addition to our environment. People who live or work in a more stimulation-free environment produce higher quality work and are less stressed to boot.
Multitasking Prevents Creative Flow
Creativity takes working memory. Working memory is inhibited with multitasking because people can’t get past the short-term memory onto the next level. Multitasking means keeping your brain working in a heightened, stressful state instead of a relaxed, free-flowing one.
Sure, you might be able to complete what’s asked of you when you multitask. However, it will be without the level of innovation and critical thinking that is possible with more focus.
Remember how we discussed the fact that multitasking creates anxiety? Anxiety and stress raise cortisol levels in the brain. Cortisol makes our brains function at a more primitive “fight or flight” level. You’ll get done what needs to get done, and no more.
A brain that is constantly in this state of danger won’t function at its highest capability. Think about what you want to accomplish. More tasks at a lower level of quality? Or better performance with more focused attention?
Multitasking Doesn’t Save Time, It Wastes Time
Since your brain can only focus on one task at a time, trying to complete more than one thing at once actually means that it takes longer to do everything. Each time your attention is pulled away to something else, it uses time and energy to shift back to the other activity.
Multitasking also prevents a flow state. Think about how fast time flies when you’re reading a great book on the beach or binging your favorite show with a bowl of popcorn. In the context of work, when your brain is completely focused on one thing, you get “in the zone.” Thus, you’re able to work up to five times more efficiently.
Live Less to Live More
If you ask people why they multitask, most of them would probably say it’s because so much is expected of them to live a full life. People today try to:
- Work full-time jobs, often with too many responsibilities
- Spend hours in traffic to get to and from work, school, or errands
- Care for their homes
- Nurture their families, often paying attention to educational aspects
- Exercise each day and eat a healthy diet
- Keep up with friends and extended family
- Budget and spend wisely to live within their means, yet keep up with the Joneses at the same time
- Engage in hobbies or activities that keep them fulfilled
- Leave time for spiritual and/or emotional development
- Get 8-9 hours of quality sleep each night
It’s an impossible mountain to climb. People do whatever they have to do to feel they’re checking off task after task to keep their heads above water. Instead, choosing the most important thing at the moment and giving it your full attention frees you up to do the next with the same amount of energy.
The bottom line is that multitasking is bad for you and bad for your brain. Even if it’s hard to break the multitasking cycle, try and give certain tasks each day your full attention.
Notice how much easier they seem or how much more productive you are when you focus on one thing at a time. Take those positive realizations and continue the path of using your brain to its fullest power.