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Multitasking is a myth.

It’s critical to understand that there really is no real multitasking in the human brain. The cerebral cortex, the brain’s “executive control”, can only pay attention to one thing at a time. As a result, your brain is rapidly switching focus from one task to another.

During the process, multitasking creates a chemical reaction in the body: a cocktail of cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine. Fact: email, Facebook and Twitter all create an unhealthy neural addiction.

We can draw from a significant amount of research available to illustrate the truth about multitasking, with noted studies coming from Harvard, Carnegie-Mellon, Michigan and Stanford. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, said “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”

We’ll break it down so that you can learn why multitasking sucks, and then what you can do to improve your productivity and quality of work.

 

Multitasking does not save time

Task switching costs time, and it adds up. According to a University of Michigan study, several tenths of a second are required each time the cerbral cortext handles a switch. Over the course of a large project, this small segment of time can add up to large inefficiencies.

In another study, Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer ran experiments with adults that found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks. The subjects lost more time if tasks were unfamiliar or complex.

Multitasking leads to errors

One of the key factors in multitasking is decision overload. Multitasking requires lots of small decisions, which leads to fatigue and stress. In their seminal book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore said that multitasking increases the chances of making mistakes and missing important cues and information.

From a chemical analysis, multitasking has been linked to an increase in production of the hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, when you know an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than smoking marijuana.

Multitasking hurts our ability to learn and create

Multitaskers are less likely to retain information in working memory, which hinders problem solving and creativity.

Stanford researchers found that attempting to learn while multitasking causes new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. For example, if you study while watching TV, the information from studying goes into the striatum, a brain region for storing new procedures and skills, rather than facts and ideas. Without TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, which organizes it for easy retrieval. The more we multitask, the worse we are at sorting through information.

Multitasking also makes us less creative. If you can’t focus, new ideas can’t flow.

Multitasking reduces our ability to focus (long term)

Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. When we multitask all day, we literally change the pathways in our brains. The consequence, according to Stanford research, is that sustaining your attention becomes impossible.

“If we [multitask] all the time — brains are remarkably plastic, remarkably adaptable,” Clifford Nass said. “We train our brains to a new way of thinking. And then when we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”

Multitasking creates stress

Multitasking has been linked to an increase in production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause high blood pressure and heart damage, while also weakening the immune system.

 

Multitasking sucks: How to stop

1. Prioritize. Each day, prepare a short goal list for the day and prioritize tasks in relation to your most important goals.

2. Control your environment. Work in a place you can focus. Avoid people who might needlessly interrupt or distract you.

3. Avoid distractions. Don’t have apps or windows open that are not necessary for the task at hand, especially email, social media, mobile texting and extraneous websites.

4. Start important tasks early. Only move forward on your task list if you complete or reach a stopping point. If you run out of time, leave open tasks for another day.

5. Mix and match tasks. If you must do two things at once, pair autopilot tasks with simple thought processes. For example, you can talk on the phone and make a sandwich, or take a walk and brainstorm a new idea.

 

Additional Reading

The Myth Of Multitasking

Deep Work

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life – Harvard Health Books

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