Multitasking - One of The Biggest Myths of 21st Century

Blog Mind Multitasking - One of The Biggest Myths of 21st Century

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12.18.2020 0 comments

In the modern world, the ability to multi-task is treated as an amazing skill, one that all professionals should work to improve on.

After all, if you’re able to work on a variety of different projects or tasks at a time, you’ll be exponentially more productive, and thus a better worker, right?

Well, what if we told you that multitasking is actually BAD for you? Not just for your productivity, but also for your mental and physical health. Multitasking isn’t going to make you better at your job—it’s just going to raise your stress levels, increase anxiety, divide your focus, and ultimately make you less productive overall.

Can’t believe it? Let’s let the science speak for itself…

A Scientific Look at Multi-Tasking

One study titled “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” [1] out of UC Irvine examined the effects of multi-tasking on forty-eight German university students. All of the students were young (mean age of 26), had decent education (high school degrees plus one year of U.S. university-level education), and were studying high-intellectual fields like psychology, mathematics, engineering, medicine, or the sciences.

The study simulated an office environment and gave each participant a simple task: they had to answer all the emails in their “work inbox”. However, throughout the task, they were interrupted periodically (every 2 minutes), with their supervisor asking them questions both related and unrelated to their work.

Compiling the results, the researchers found that though the rate of errors didn’t increase as a result of the interruptions, it resulted in a longer time to complete the assigned tasks. The participants also felt more stressed and reported a higher “mental workload” thanks to the interruptions, though the tasks remained unchanged. Frustration levels also skyrocketed, and all of the students reported feeling a time pressure.

Another study from the University of California in San Francisco found that multi-tasking can actually impact short-term memory [2]. Not only that, but older people have a harder time switching between tasks because of the different parts of the brain responsible for both attention and memory. Older brains have a harder time ignoring distractions and information that is irrelevant to the task at hand, which in turn affects their short-term memory and causes their concentration to flag.

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist and picopower professor at MIT, [3] believes that people are incapable of multi-tasking well. He claims that our brains actually focus on each task at a time, but simply shifts our focus between the various tasks with amazing speed. You’re not working on two things simultaneously, but each individual thing at a time.

In an interview with NPR [3], a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan proved that switching between even simple tasks can “overwhelm” the brain. He proved through simple color-based tests that attention can only be divided so much before the brain begins to struggle. The brain basically can only search for one thing at a time (in this case, one of the colors used for the test), and the executive system switches between the various objects quickly, but the faster it switches, the closer it gets to overload.

Another study out of Stanford University [4] proved that multi-tasking can actually impair cognitive control. The study examined the effects of multi-tasking on 100 students, and found that people who were “high multitaskers” (engaged in multiple activities at the same time) had a harder time ignoring distracting and irrelevant images. However, their working memories didn’t prove more effective than low multi-taskers—quite the opposite, in fact. They performed worse in subsequent memory tests and struggled to keep information sorted in their brains.

The study discovered that multi-tasking makes it difficult to separate individual elements in the mind. People who multi-task are always drawing information from what’s directly in front of them, regardless of whether or not it’s relevant. Thus, they potentially damage their own concentration—not just in the short term, but in the long term—by reducing their ability to ignore distractions around them.

But none of this is really “new” information! Studies dating back as far as the 1990s [5] proved that the brain was less competent at “mental juggling” than most of us realize. The time it takes to switch between tasks may not seem like a lot while we’re doing it, but the more we switch, the longer it takes to adjust and adapt cognitively to the new task.

Suffice it to say, science has definitively proven that multi-tasking is not something you want to excel at, nor should it be something that you engage in. To be maximally effective and productive, it’s important to focus on each task you’re doing, and remain fully focused on it until it’s completed. Then, and ONLY then, should you move on to the next task, and give it your full focus as well.

It’s better for your brain, it triggers less stress, and will help you remain fully productive well into your older years when cognitive function inevitably decreases.








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