In a world with smartphones in everyone’s pockets, multitasking has become more prevalent than ever. We answer emails, scroll through social feeds, and play games, all while watching the latest binge-worthy Netflix series.
We tend to multitask so much, we usually don’t even notice that we’re doing it. You’re probably even reading this while multitasking (yes, stopping midway through this post to read a text counts).
You might be thinking “this post doesn’t apply to me, I’m an amazing multitasker!” Well… I hate to break it to you, but only 2% of the population is truly great at multitasking. So in all likelihood, you and I aren’t multitasking wizards, even with all of the practice we get on a daily basis.
Your Brain While Multitasking
When you multitask, it feels like you’re getting multiple tasks done at the same time. But when you take a closer look, you’re just rapidly switching between tasks.
Think of your brain juggling a few tasks. One task has your focus for a split second, gets tossed up, and another comes back down into focus only to get tossed up again to repeat the cycle.
When you juggle multiple tasks like this, your brain performs two crucial actions within your executive function. The first is called “cognitive shifting” and the second is “rule activation”.
- Cognitive Shifting: your brain making the conscious decision to shift focus to a new task.
- Rule Activation: your brain adapting to the “rules” of the new task you’re performing and contextualizing the actions needed for said task.
The processing time your brain needs between tasks is called the “psychological refractory period”. Think of this refractory period as the split second of delay between pressing a button on your remote and it registering on your TV. It happens so fast you might not notice it, but it’s definitely there. While multitasking, this refractory period can lead to a 40% drop in productivity.
How Multitasking Affects Learning and Memory Retention
To be at your best when performing any complex task, you should aim to reach a “flow state”. Being in a flow state means you’re fully immersed and focused on a single task.
On average, it takes about 15 minutes of undivided attention to reach a flow state. By toggling back and forth between tasks while multitasking, you’re never truly in a continuous state of flow. This greatly reduces the effectiveness of any study session or learning endeavor.
Multitasking also reduces your ability to learn and memorize information. According to a study from UCLA psychologists, information you gather while multitasking becomes more specialized and rigid when stored in your brain. Information stored like this is much more difficult to retrieve when you need it the most, like during that make-or-break test.
Your brain’s hippocampus assists in the forming, sorting, and recollection of memories and information. But, when you multitask while learning, you end up activating more of your striatum when processing information. Your striatum is responsible for learning new skills and motor functions. This fundamentally changes the way you learn and recall information.
And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, researchers in London found that your IQ is lowered by about 15 points while multitasking. This is similar to the decrease you see in people who’ve just pulled an all nighter.
The Long Term Effects of Habitual Multitasking
The Stanford Memory Lab published a study showing those who are considered “heavy media multitaskers” presented a significant decrease in performance with memory and sustained attention tasks.
Interestingly, those who are habitually heavy media multitaskers are also worse at switching between tasks than those who were classified as light multitaskers. A study from 2014 shows that those who are habitual heavy multitaskers have reduced grey matter in their cingula, the area of the brain accountable for attention and focus.
So no, multitasking is not a skill you can get better at. In fact, multitasking actually makes you worse at multitasking over time. That’s a head scratcher.
Multitasking is Detrimental to Your Mental and Physical Health
So now we know that multitasking really isn’t effective and even has negative effects on your long term cognition. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s also terrible for your mental health.
It’s been shown that heavy media multitaskers have a higher reported rate of anxiety and depression. Shuffling between a bunch of tasks puts your brain into overdrive, increasing your overall anxiety and stress. Over time, habitually multitasking makes it harder to push away irrelevant information and distractions, feeding into anxiety even more.
Your body reacts to this increased anxiety by flooding your system with adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress-related hormones. Increased levels of these hormones can lead to insomnia, high blood pressure, inflammation, and even a suppressed immune system.
How to Avoid Multitasking
How can we reduce the negative effects of multitasking when we’re constantly being distracted by our phones and other devices? Here are a few small steps you can take to avoid distractions and put that important task first.
Become aware of your habits
Start making mental notes every time you start multitasking. When you’re lounging around watching some tv, actively think about the times you start looking at your phone, talk to your friend, or even pet your dog. This will help you become more mindful to block out distractions when it really matters.
Minimize your distractions when performing important tasks
Before studying, pick a location that is quiet and cozy and focus on being present. While you’re studying, turn your phone notifications off, try to block out any distractions, and put all of your attention towards a singular task.
“Batch” your tasks
You’ll want to put each task ahead of you in its own bucket and only focus on one bucket at a time. When working on a task, give it your undivided attention for 20-30 minutes before moving to a new bucket. Check out the Pomodoro Technique, a great way to batch your tasks and up your productivity.
Sometimes multitasking is unavoidable, and that’s okay. But it should be kept to a minimum when you have an important task, like studying, at hand.
If you catch yourself watching TV, talking on the phone, and playing a game at the same time don’t stress out about it. Become aware of your habits and let’s all work towards a somewhat distraction-free future.