It’s another day at work. You’re preparing an upcoming presentation, checking your email every few minutes, texting your best friend, planning the weekend, and scrolling through Facebook—all while watching the clock and anxiously anticipating lunchtime. You’re multitasking, and you probably think you’re doing it well.
If you ask most people, chances are they will tell you they’re good at multitasking. Research tells us that isn’t the case. In fact, multitasking may actually make you less productive, even if you’re completing multiple tasks at once. According to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, the more you multitask, the less you are able to concentrate, learn, and even be nice to people.
Here are six reasons why you’re actually not as good at multitasking as you think you are:
1. Multitasking Makes It Harder to Filter Information
Research indicates that the more you multitask, the less your brain is able to filter out information. When comparing the brains of people who multitask versus those who don’t, researchers found those who multitask not only have difficulty filtering irrelevant information, but they actually exert more energy using parts of the brain that aren’t necessary for the task at hand.
On the contrary, when you focus on one thing at a time, the brain is able to zone in and filter out the rest, leaving more of your brain’s resources available to what you are actually doing.
2. Multitasking Makes It Difficult to Pay Attentionattention to the road. For example, when drivers listen to other people in the car speak, the drivers’ attention levels toward driving go down by about 37%.
3. Multitasking Lowers Your Efficiency
Continuously switching back and forth between tasks makes the brain less available for the individual task at hand and ultimately lowers efficiency rather than improving productivity. A University of London research study indicated that people who multitask while performing cognitive tasks show significant drops in IQ (intelligence quotient) similar to those of people who had smoked marijuana or had not slept the night before. Something as simple as knowing there are unread emails in your inbox can lower IQ by 10 points.
4. Multitasking Makes Long-Term Goals Harder to Achieve
Multitasking trains our brains to seek instant gratification. Constantly switching from task to task, checking your email, and scrolling your Twitter feed creates a constant need for feedback.
With each text message you send or email you respond to, your brain gets a surge of dopamine—one of the brain’s feel-good hormones—which encourages you to continue the rewarding behavior. This leads the brain to seek more instant gratification and makes it difficult to sustain the attention needed to work toward long-term goals.
When you don’t quickly receive that release of dopamine, you may become bored or uncomfortable and give up on the task in order to do other short-term tasks. While these tasks offer that reward more quickly, they are less rewarding in the long-term. This feedback loop may make you feel like you’re accomplishing a lot, but you may realize it doesn’t amount to much at the end of the day.
5. Multitasking Lowers Emotional Intelligence
Research has shown multitasking lowers emotional intelligence and can actually make us less friendly. A study conducted by the University of Sussex concluded that individuals who used multiple devices at once (cell phone, computer, television, etc.) and who multitasked more often showed less brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex—the area of the brain that governs emotional control and empathy.
6. Multitasking Causes More Stress
According to multiple studies, chronic multitaskers have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Normal levels of cortisol can be helpful for the body, but when levels are too high it can cause reproductive issues, increase inflammation in the body, raise blood sugar, weaken the immune system, increase belly fat, and damage the parts of the brain that control memory. Many people who multitask have issues with working memory, which can make it more difficult to make rational decisions.
Tips for Improving Your Ability to Single Task:
- Practice mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation can help train your brain to slow down and focus on what’s happening in the present moment. This can make you less likely to give in to distraction and improve your ability to sustain your attention for longer periods of time.Continuously switching back and forth between tasks makes the brain less available for the individual task at hand and ultimately lowers efficiency rather than improving productivity.
- Take frequent breaks: Rather than doing several things at once, focus on one task at a time and take frequent breaks to allow your brain to reset.
- Make a to-do list: Making a to-do list can help you organize and keep track of the tasks you need to complete. With a to-do list, you can work on completing your tasks one at a time until you are finished rather than trying to work on multiple tasks at once. To-do lists also work well for achieving long-term goals. You can break your goals down into small tasks and check each task off as you finish, receiving a surge of dopamine for the completion of each small milestone along the way.
- Use timers for intense focus time: Because many of us in the digital age are tempted to switch from tab to tab, screen to screen, or device to device, it isn’t always easy to focus on one task at a time. Productivity and time management coaches recommend setting a timer for a designated period of time (i.e. 45 minutes) and not allowing yourself to do anything else other than that task until the timer goes off. This can help curb the urge to check your email and respond to that text message.
- Eliminate distractions: When attempting to conquer a task, eliminate as many distractions as possible to help you stay focused. Turn off the television, keep your phone on silent, and find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted.
- Set designated time to check email: Employees spend approximately 28% of their day responding to emails. Email can be incredibly distracting and is known to drain productivity. Rather than constantly refreshing your inbox every few minutes, set designated times each day to check your email, and then avoid checking it outside of those times. For example, you might check it in the morning, at lunch, and right before you stop working each day.
- Try therapy: For those who want some extra help improving productivity, finding a qualified therapist can be a good option. Therapists can help people improve their ability to single task by teaching cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. These techniques can be used to help improve time management skills as well as learn to change thought patterns that may contribute to distraction or the desire to multitask. Many other types of therapy can also help someone who wants to feel less overwhelmed or who wants to become more successful at work.
- Baer, D. (2013, October 9). What multitasking does to your brain. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/3019659/leadership-now/what-multitasking-does-to-your-brain
- Chapman, S.C. (2013, May 8). Why single-tasking makes you smarter. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/05/08/why-single-tasking-makes-you-smarter/#18e70d131b5c
- Gupta, S. (2016, August 1). Your brain on multitasking. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/09/health/your-brain-multitasking/
- Kim, L. (2015, July 15). Multitasking is killing your brain. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/larry-kim/why-multi-tasking-is-killing-your-brain.html
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