Multitasking seems like a great way to get many things done at once. However, research has shown that our brains are not as good at handling multiple tasks at once as we think they are.
Before we explore the psychology behind multitasking, let’s define the term: multitasking is the act of performing two or more tasks simultaneously, switching back and forth from one thing to another, or performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.
So, does multitasking make you more productive?
Think about what you are doing right now. Chances are, you are doing several things at once - perhaps, texting your friends or watching your favorite TV show or listening to music while reading this article? If you are doing several things at once, then you may be what researchers refer to as a “heavy multitasker”.
According to a number of different studies, you are probably not as productive as you think you are. Research shows that even though you think you are doing two things at the same time, you aren’t. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, says we simply cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. In reality, you are really switching from one thing to another, which has shown to take a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain begins working anytime you need to pay attention. Working on a single task means both sides of the prefrontal cortex are working together in harmony. Adding another task forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. This causes us to forget details and make three times more mistakes.
In order to determine the impact of multitasking, psychologists asked participants to switch tasks and measured how much time was lost by switching. In a study conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than why they repeated the same task. Similar results were found in another study conducted by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffery Evans, and David Meyer.
David Meyer suggests that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% by mental blocks created when people switch tasks. Therefore, the next time you find yourself multitasking when trying to be productive, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish, eliminate distractions and try to focus on one task at a time.
In the brain, multitasking is managed by executive functions. These control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed.
According to Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffery Evans, and David Meyer, there are 2 stages to the executive control process.
Goal shifting - deciding to do one thing instead of the other
Role activation - changing from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task
While moving through tasks will only add a few tenths of a second, these can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly. This might not matter when you are doing simple tasks that do not require much energy, but if you are in a situation where safety is important, such as driving a car, even small amounts of time can make a difference.
The Effects of Multitasking on the Brain
At any given moment you might be texting a friend, watching your favorite TV show, switching between multiple windows on your computer, and much more, all at once! This might lead to the inability to avoid the distraction of your favorite social media sites when you get a quiet moment with nothing demanding your attention.
This poses the question: while we know that multitasking is not good for productivity, is it possible that it might be bad for brain health?
In a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass, it was found that people who were considered heavy multitaskers were actually worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details. They also showed greater difficulty when it came to switching from one task to another and were much less mentally organized. Clifford Nass also found that these effects even occurred when the heavy multitaskers were not multitasking, which shows that even when they were focusing on one task, their brains were less effective and efficient.
Experts also suggest that the negative impact of chronic, heavy multitasking might be the most detrimental to adolescent minds. At this age in particular, the brain is busy forming important neural connections that could have serious, long-term, negative impacts on how they form if the attention is spread so thinly.
Minimizing the Effects of Multitasking
If you are now sitting thinking: what do I do now? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! There are ways to minimize the impacts of multitasking.
Clifford Nass says that while further investigations are needed about whether the damage from multitasking is permanent, current evidence suggests that people who stop multitasking will be able to perform better. To avoid the impacts, these steps should be taken:
Limit the number of things done at any given time to just two tasks.
Use the “20-minute” rule. Instead of constantly switching between tasks, you can fully devote your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the other.
To prevent the urge to pick up your devices:
Turn off the audio and visual cues built into your devices that alert you to the presence of more information
Separate your devices from your workspace
Multitasking Isn’t Always Bad
Some research does suggest that people who use more than one form of media or type of technology at the same time might be better at integrating visual and auditory information.
In a study, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about their media usage. They then completed a visual search task both with and without sound to indicate when an item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better in the search when the sound was present, indicating that they were better at integrating the two sources of sensory information.
“The present findings highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multi sensory integration in particular,” the study’s authors noted.
While multitasking may be perceived to improve productivity, research indicated otherwise.
Multitasking may not always be bad, but it can have a detrimental effect on our productivity and brain health, which heavily outweigh the few good things that it brings.
To minimize the risks, be aware of when you are multitasking, take steps to avoid the urge of a distraction and minimize the chances of being affected by multitasking.
Most importantly, commit to one thing at a time.
Remember this the next time you have an important test coming up, or just want to complete your homework faster!