Is it Possible to Multitask? 12 Reasons Why You May Not Want To

There hasn’t been a busier time in the history of mankind than today’s fast paced digital world. Every day, we’re constantly barraged by an infinite stream of information, emails and social media notifications, whilst trying to keep up with demands from work, family and friends .

Our response to this overwhelm has been to do more than one thing at a time. We respond to text messages, whilst completing important projects, send emails, whilst watching TV shows and scroll through social media feeds, whilst chatting with friends and family.

But is it possible to multitask in this way? Even though it may seem like we’re getting a lot done, multitasking could cost us precious time and energy.

Here are 12 scientific reasons why you should stop multitasking today.

1. Multitasking kills productivity.

Each time we switch from one task to another, there’s a cognitive cost that hurts our productivity.

According to Gloria Mark, professor in the department of informatics at the University of California, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after an interruption.[1]

We’d like to think that it’s possible to juggle multiple tasks at once, but it comes with the cost of reducing the quality and quantity of attention applied to a task.

As a result, your productivity is less than that of someone who focuses on one task at a time.

2. Multitasking could endanger your life.

There are certain situations where multitasking may endanger your life.

For example, chatting on the phone whilst driving, or texting whilst crossing a busy road, could significantly compromise your ability to maintain safety.[2]

Multitasking isn’t worth your energy, time and especially, not your life.

3. Multitasking could damage your brain.

A study by researchers from the University of Sussex (UK) compared the amount of time people spent on media devices, like texting and watching TV to their brain structure.[3] The MRI scans of their brains showed that participants who multitasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region responsible for empathy and emotional control.

According to the lead researcher, Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh:

“I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

4. Multitasking could make you dumber.

A study conducted by the University of London found that adult participants who multitasked experienced drops in IQ points to the average range of an 8-year old child.[4]

Imagine the effects of writing an important paper or email to a client whilst responding to texts on your phone. There won’t be much difference in the quality of your work and that of an 8-year-old child.

If you’re struggling to deliver high quality work on a consistent basis, make sure to eliminate distractions in your environment and avoid multitasking. This will help to raise the quality of your work.

5. Multitasking causes chronic stress and anxiety.

There are many causes of stress and anxiety but one of the major culprits is multitasking.

When we constantly switch between tasks, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in our body. This hormone creates stress, tires us out and leaves us mentally fatigued.

Then, anxiety builds up and we act impulsively which creates more stress. And the cycle repeats itself, creating a constant state of stress and anxiety.

6. Multitasking worsens decision-making skills.

Multitasking also hurts yours ability to make good decisions. Switching tasks requires that you spend precious energy deciding what to do or what not to do.

For example, if you’re sending important emails to your boss whilst responding to text messages, you’d have to make decisions immediately:

How do I respond to this email? Should I respond to this text now? Should I take a break from work?

These decisions deplete your willpower muscles and causes decision fatigue, a psychological term referring to the deterioration of good decisions after making a long series of decisions.[5]

In addition, when an important scenario arises for you to practice self-control or delay gratification, you’re more likely to act on impulse. And you won’t have enough willpower to take effective action towards the important things in your life.

In effect, multitasking causes a downward spiral of bad decisions, that cost time, energy and money.

7. Multitasking hurts learning ability.

A study published in the journal Computers and Education found that on average, participants who used Facebook, whilst texting and doing schoolwork, had a lower GPA and grades, than those who didn’t.[6] According to the researchers, Reynol Junco and Shelia R. Cotton:

“Human information processing is insufficient for attending to multiple input streams and for performing simultaneous tasks.”

Quality attention is crucial for learning but multitasking reduces our ability to focus on a task at hand. As a result of low levels of attention, learning effectively is much harder than otherwise.

8. Multitasking kills your ability to focus.

According to neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, when you multitask, parts of your brain reward you for losing focus and switching tasks, with a rush of dopamine. The same parts of the brain that help you stay focused on a task become trained to look for distractions.

And so, when you’re working, you’ll feel a restlessness to check your email, social media and search for a dopamine rush from something else.

Once multitasking becomes a habit, it becomes very difficult to break the cycle of the dopamine rush linked to lack of focus and low productivity.

9. Multitasking kills creativity.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re writing an important paper and then, an incoming email from a work colleague pops up on your phone. You stop writing and respond to the email.

When you return back to writing, your brain has just spent valuable energy refocusing on the task at hand that could have been used for creative thinking. As a result, not only have you wasted energy, but also creative juice for your work.

Creative thinking requires a good level of concentration and attention. The problem with multitasking is that innovative ideas that crossed your mind could pass you by if you didn’t stay focused.

10. Multitasking may reduce your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions, in addition to the emotions of others. In general, emotional intelligence includes core skills, like emotional awareness, the ability to apply emotions to critical thinking and problem solving and the ability to manage emotions.[7]

According to Travis Bradberry, emotional intelligence expert, multitasking may damage a part of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex that is responsible for emotional intelligence, a trait found within 90% of top performers.[8]

Multitasking reduces the speed and quality of work, worsens concentration and attention to detail. Additionally, multitasking in social gatherings may be an indication of low self and social awareness, two crucial emotional intelligence skills for success at work.

11. Multitasking causes overwhelm and burnout.

Ever wonder why you feel constantly tired even after a good night of sleep or a long vacation?

The constant switching between tasks requires a lot of attention and energy. When your brain shifts attention from one task to another, the prefrontal cortex of the brain loses oxygenated glucose which is required for staying focused on tasks.

The more tasks you switch between, the more oxygenated glucose your brain burns. After a short period of time, you’ll feel overwhelmed and tired, because of the loss of nutrients in the brain.

12. Multitasking could harm health more than marijuana

New York Times bestselling author and Neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, suggests that multitasking could damage our brains, even more so than smoking marijuana![9]

According to Levitin, the main ingredient in Marijuana, cannabinol, negatively affects the same receptors in the brain responsible for memory and concentration. And multitasking could cause greater cognitive losses.

Next time you’re about to multitask, think of the similar effects of smoking marijuana. If you wouldn’t use drugs whilst completing an important task, then why multitask?

Final thoughts

As you’ve read thus far, multitasking is a bad habit that has long-term harmful effects on your health, well-being and productivity. But there’s hope if you take charge of your life today.

When working on important tasks, eliminate as many distractions as possible including your phone, email access and people. Every day, create time blocks of 10 to 30 minutes for focused work. Take short breaks every two hours to recoup your energy and regain focus.

Most importantly, do one thing at a time and you’ll be productive for a lifetime.

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

Mayo Oshin:

Entrepreneur and Writer on Habits

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