“When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing – quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.” ~ Michael Harris
In our accomplishment-oriented society, we have emphasized the ability to multitask as a crucial skill necessary for the work environment. However, research in recent years has shown that our brains truly cannot multitask and when we attempt to multitask we add more stress to our lives. Our brains are not capable of doing more than one thing at a time. So, when you think you are multitasking between working on a project and responding to an email, your brain is just switching back and forth between each activity and your attention is fragmented. This frequent switching overloads our brain.
Many people have thought that it is vital for our brains to multitask because it is giving them a good workout, however, the exact opposite is true. When you multitask, you are exhausting the brain and draining the brain of its cognitive resources. I know that when I was multitasking furiously at work, I felt like I was developing Alzheimer’s disease because I was unable to remember so many little things and the research is proving this to be true. Those people who are habitual multitaskers increase the stress hormone cortisol in their brain and that can damage the memory region of the brain. Prolonged stress and multitasking is harmful to your body and brain.
The biggest detriment in our ability to singletask is technology. I love technology and all of the things it can do for us, but I am also cognizant of the distractions it causes in life. Our younger generation has grown up with technology and finds multitasking normal, fun and exciting. But, as more and more of us have become dependent on our technologies, we too suffer from the constant distractions. Many people are constantly connected to their “smart devices” and when they see an email, Facebook, Instagram, or text notification, they switch from whatever they were doing to deal with the newest piece of information. Thus, they lose the acuity on the task they were doing to check out the latest, tweet, text or email. And for the most part, many people are unconscious and don't realize they are controlled by the technology and the constant demand to switch tasks.
Multitasking does not help our productivity. If you want to be the most productive on a complex task, you should singletask and place all of your energy and brainpower on the one task.
What can you do the change the multitasking habit? Mindfulness and doing one thing at a time is the key. I schedule a block of uninterrupted time each day to focus on big projects that require the most brainpower. I have turned off notifications on my computer, tablet, phone and watch and set times each day to attend to email and social media. Many advise checking email and dealing with it two –three times a day instead of letting it interrupt your flow all day. I usually work on email at the beginning of the day, after lunch and before dinner. The only notification I receive during the day is the reminder to breathe. When it goes off, I stop what I am doing and practice focused breathing for a minute or two and that brings me back to the present moment. When I am with other people, I turn off my phone and am fully present with the people I am engaging with and concentrate on the conversation. Finally, I give my brain practice in doing one thing at a time with a daily meditation practice, which calms my body, fights the stress caused by multitasking and improves the cognitive functioning of my brain.
Do you multitask? What impact does it have on your life?
What can you do to include more singletasking activities in your day?
The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress
Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows
Neuroscientists say multitasking literally drains the energy reserves of your brain
Email Duration, Batching and Self-Interuption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress
The Myth of Multitasking
A critical role for the right fronto-insular cortex in switching between central-executive and default-mode networks
Peggy Steffens is an artist and Chopra Certified Meditation Instructor
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