Multitasking – Is anybody actually good at it?

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Multitasking may sound very tempting when you have a lot of work to do and you want to save some minutes, but it actually causes more problems and makes you consume even more time. Of course, you can always listen to some music while doing laundry, but if your tasks are work-related or require some degree of concentration, you may want to think again before resorting to multitasking.

Unfortunately for busy people, plenty of studies show that multitasking doesn’t actually mean completing two or more tasks at the same time, although we may have this impression; moreover, multitasking may lead to more wasted time and even more mistakes.

So, why can’t we multitask?

It is because of the brain’s executive control processes, which take place with the help of the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that is responsible, among others, for concentration. These executive control processes have two distinct phases: goal shifting and rule activation. In the goal shifting phase, the brain focuses on completing task A instead of task B. In the rule activation phase, the brain focuses on switching off the rules needed to complete task A and concentrates on turning on the rules needed in order to complete task B. When you proceed to do two tasks simultaneously, the processes which happen in the brain are more numerous than you may think. At first, the brain works on the first task. When you switch tasks, the brain has to shift goals from task A to task B and then recalls the rules of task B. And so on.

The brain shifts between tasks without you realizing it, but the shifting actually takes time and the processes are successive, not simultaneous.

What are the effects of multitasking?

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First of all, you are less productive, as the completion of tasks takes more time because of the constant switches which happen in the brain. Although these switches may take as little as a few tenths of a second per switch and you may think they are irrelevant, the delays add up over time and may come to cost even 40 percent of your productive time. Moreover, the brief mental blocks do not only affect the time required for the completion of the tasks, but they also lead to more errors.

Several pieces of research published in 2001 showed that these effects suffer a remarkable transformation in case of completing complex or unfamiliar tasks, as participants took significantly longer to switch between the tasks and they also made more mistakes. Thus said, although we may be proud that we are able to get a lot done in a short span of time, the cognitive costs actually make us more inefficient.

Secondly, multitasking leads to us being more stressed, anxious, and exhausted. Forcing ourselves to constantly switch between tasks leads to the draining of the oxygenated glucose in the brain, which is responsible for the mental energy that allows us to stay focused on the task. Our attempt at multitasking leads to fatigue and sabotages both our cognitive and physical performance.

The decision-making which is often involved in multitasking also leads to tiredness, as we have to constantly decide which course of action to choose in order to complete both tasks more quickly and efficiently. A former professor of psychology Glenn Wilson has discovered that the simple acknowledgment that we have an unread email while we are trying to focus on a task may reduce our effective IQ by 10 percent.

Moreover, the small decisions that we constantly have to make end up consuming our decision-making energy, leading to us making bad decisions when we confront problems of significant importance.

Wilson is also the one who showed that multitasking greatly affects memory and the capacity to concentrate on several things at once. The relationship between the brain and multitasking was also studied by neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, who discovered that learning new information while multitasking causes it to go to the wrong part of the brain. The information goes into the striatum, a region of the brain responsible for storing new skills, instead of going into the hippocampus, from where it is easier to retrieve.

Another 2014 study from the Public Library of Science analyzed the relationship between multitasking and brain structure. The researchers found out that individuals who engaged themselves the most in multitasking had smaller levels of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in decision-making and impulse control. However, the researchers couldn’t determine whether there was a causality between multitasking and tissue loss.

What’s to be done?

All things considered, the logical conclusion would be that we should stop trying to multitask and focus on one thing at a time, in order to increase the quality and quantity of our work. However, giving up multitasking can be quite a challenge, and this is because it creates dopamine addiction.

Whenever we complete a small task while also working on a bigger project, we get a sense of reward and accomplishment. Even though we may complete the tasks inefficiently and make more mistakes than if we focused on one thing at a time, our brain keeps releasing dopamine and we continue multitasking.

Moreover, the temptation of multitasking is increased by the novelty bias of our prefrontal cortex, which makes it easily distracted and excited by new things.

Even though it may take a while until we manage to give up multitasking, being informed about the negative impact it has on our productivity is surely a good first step.

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