The Trouble With Multitasking

The ability to multitask is celebrated by businesses and by people, but it’s not all that it’s cut out to be. Research into how the human brain works finds that we don’t actually multitask (in the sense that we can do many things at the same time or think of many things at the same time); but rather, we are switching tasks rapidly. For example, you may think you are multitasking when you are researching something, writing a report, and checking your social media, but what you are actually doing is switching between them-sometimes fast, but more often, not very fast at all.

There are many problems with multitasking and they are enough that perhaps this skill shouldn’t be celebrated with so much fervor after all. First of all, multitasking means that you are never 100% focused on a single task, but instead have your focus split among several tasks. This means that each task only gets a percentage of your attention and that means that you aren’t giving your best effort on one task, but rather a small amount of effort on many tasks. The end result is tasks which aren’t quite up to the standard they could otherwise be and furthermore, you feel burned out.

Multitasking is also exhausting on your mind and makes it harder to retain facts and information because you are constantly jumping around and some things are bound to slip through the cracks. At the end of the day, you feel run off your feet, but still with the nagging feeling that things didn’t get done as well as they could have been. This isn’t the best feeling to have at the end of the day!

Multitasking is touted as being a fantastic skill to have in the workplace, but studies have shown the opposite. For example, a Stanford study showed that people who believed themselves to be fantastic multitaskers were actually less efficient than those who did one task at a time and were slower to switch from one task to another (likely because they never felt ‘finished’ and so their brain never got the closure it needed to switch). People who focused on one task at a time on the other hand were more efficient.

Now, it must be understood that this was a media multitasking study done on students; ie., students were doing homework plus checking social media plus watching videos and then the other side was just doing one task at a time. But we can extrapolate a similar phenomenon in the workplace with the bombardment of email, meeting requests, social media, and the usual day to day work piled on top of that. In fact, we are seeing a definite increase in stress and burn out because people are constantly feeling like they have to be plugged in and juggling multiple tasks to keep their job and get ahead.

Finally, (as if all of this wasn’t enough), multitasking has been linked to reducing IQ points! (ouch!) A University of London study found that people who multitasked on cognitive tasks experienced a drop in IQ to the tune of 15 points; the equivalent to staying up all night or smoking pot. To put it another way, IQ drops of 15 means that their IQ dropped to the average range of an eight year old. And the more we multitask, the more damage we do to our brains too; the University of Sussex found that people who spend more time on multiple devices had less brain density in the parts of the brain responsible for empathy, cognitive and emotional control. We don’t know if this a true effect or casual yet, but screens and the work pile up is changing the way we think.

We aren’t computers and while computers can multitask just fine, the human brain isn’t so capable of doing this. We can see this played out in the realm of work related stress and burn out and the sustained rise of things like productivity coaches, time management workshops, and other programs and experts trying to convince people to dial it back a bit and give their over taxed brains a bit of a rest. In the next article, we will look at ways to claw back some of your productivity from the grip of multitasking.

What do you think? Are you a multitasker or are you just switching tasks really fast and causing trouble for yourself in the process? Sound off on our Facebook page! (But not while you should be working on something else!)

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Charlene is a full time instructor and published author. She enjoys writing about education, digital career paths, job hunts, and for her books, fantasy/mysteries. You can learn more about her novels at Kellan Publishing.