Multitasking Impacts Our Ability to Cope with 2020
By ShannonElaine John
While most of us believe we are excellent multitaskers, the truth is that the majority (98%) of us are not.
The immediate evidence is in that it has taken me one week yes, ONE WEEK to write about multitasking. This percentage comes out of studies on multitasking conducted by David Strayer at the University of Utah’s applied cognition lab. What is worse is that attempting to be the 2% of the population that can multitask effectively is causing damage to our brains.
Further research conducted by the University of Sussex discovered that regularly multitasking causes lower brain density in the regions of their brain responsible for empathy, cognitive control and emotional control.
Read that again. Empathy, cognitive control and emotional control are reduced if we multitask regularly.
Any impact on our brains in areas responsible for cognitive control reduces the probability that we can make quick decisive decisions and rationalize negative thoughts we have about situations. It reduces focus and attention. When an individual is faced with uncertainty in the form of increased information processing demands cognitive control is necessary.
Any impact on our brains in areas responsible for emotional control lowers out emotional intelligence. It reduces the probability that we can realize, readily accept, as well as successfully control feelings. Inability to do these things increase the likelihood that you will be hijacked by your emotions. In addition to, potentially have reactive outbursts in stressful situations.
Any impact on our brains in areas responsible for empathy inhibits our ability to relate to others, to communicate effectively and to connect with others. Struggling in these areas increase anxiety and depression symptoms in people. It is blinding us to the fact that we are not good at all of our attempts to juggle multiple tasks and makes us lose the ability to know what is important and what is not. It makes a lot of sense why so many of us are struggling amid COVID19.
Multitasking impacts productivity, causing tasks to take longer and increases errors.
Research conducted by Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research shows that the human brain can hold multiple tasks in the frontal cortex queue. However, Paul Dux at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia states his research shows that it cannot handle executing more than one task at a time. And what appears as multitasking is actually our brains switching rapidly between tasks.
Rapid switching between tasks leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity.
The Journal of Experimental Psychology reported when switching from one task to another we make more errors. If the tasks are complex, then these time and error consequences increase. When we multitask, our work suffers. It can take us 50% longer to complete a task while making up to 50% more errors. Think of how many times you must backtrack, having to repeat a bit of where you left off after switching tasks. Think of how many times you cannot remember what you read or wrote and must go back and re-read something.
The same study also found multitasking has a negative physical effect, prompting the release of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones. This dump of hormones can trigger a vicious cycle, where we work industriously at multi-tasking, take longer to get things done, then feel overwhelmed, agitated and bound to multi-task more.
Multitasking has also been found by a University of London study to reduce our IQ scores by 10%.
This drop is similar to what occurs from the use of marijuana or staying up all night. Just think, all that multitasking is reducing our intelligence! What is worse, is that we can become addicted to the constant buzz of activity that multitasking gives us! It becomes a bad habit we struggle to break.
What does this mean for a society who places high value on being “busy” and “productive”?
The good news is that we can fix that damage if we work on one thing at a time, in a place where we can concentrate. And we take up activities that require concentration or make changes to the things distracting us.
How do we reduce the impact multitasking has and make changes?
The first step to change any behavior is to accept it! So, if we want to heal our brains and want to stop, the first thing we need to do is accept that we are multitasking. And that multitasking is not effective. Acknowledging when we do it and putting our attention on the exact thing, we want to change is such a pivotal step.
…or “batch processing” by choosing certain times of the day (morning, afternoon, evening) that you are going to do one specific task such as checking email or returning phone calls, texting, checking voicemails etc. This will eliminate things that usually distract us.
Use blocks of concentrated time
…by eliminating distractions; closing doors, turning off or completely silencing phones, closing down email etc. and taking a preestablished block of time to execute the one task. I find it helpful to use an egg timer, stove timer or my cell phone timer. This is also called the Pomodoro technique.
Work on our most important tasks first
…by identifying at the start of the day, one or two very important tasks we want to accomplish. Starting with those tasks increase our sense of accomplishment and relief, reducing the anxiety to get something done and do more and more at one time.
Leave time for negative/white space
…by creating time in your day to do nothing. Not talking, not writing, not reading and not working. It is not blank space since it serves a purpose. It sounds counter-intuitive however, research on creativity tells us that we will solve problems if we stop thinking about the problem or topic. Doing nothing strategically allows your brain to stop thinking or clear the queue so it has time to integrate information.
Thinking about the things we need to do while doing other things puts more information in our prefrontal cortex queue and since we can only do one of those tasks at a time we are overwhelming our brain computer. Imagine having 10 browser windows or programs open at one time and what it does to the efficiency of your computer. So, go get exercise, listen to music, go for a walk or zone out in nature.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness
CBT can also be used to help literally rewire the brains of chronic multitaskers by remapping parts of the brain. By using mindfulness techniques and changing the thought patterns that contribute to our desire to multitask, we can train our brains to focus and learn to be productive monotaskers.
The most important way to make changes in reducing multitasking activities is to do a tech detox. Go off grid. Get out into nature. No internet, no social media, no cell phones, no email… nothing. Intentionally do this for 24 hours, 48 hours or a week. This allows us to experience our world slower and become more aware of our lives. It allows us to engage meaningfully with the people around us and facilitates spending significant time on one activity. This detox decreases fatigue, exhaustion, brain fog, irritability and increases healing and happiness.