Multitasking is a Weakness, Not a Strength

Multitasking is a Weakness, Not a Strength

In a 2009 study Stanford researcher Clifford Nass challenged 262 college students to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory. Nass and his colleagues expected that frequent multitaskers would outperform non multitaskers on at least some of these activities. They found the opposite: Chronic multitaskers were abysmal at all three tasks. The scariest part: Only one of the experiments actually involved multitasking, signaling to Nass that even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multitaskers don’t use their brains effectively. In 2010 a study, neuroscientists at the French medical research agency, Inserm, showed that when people focus on two tasks simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task. This suggests a two task limit on what the human brain can handle. We take on more bits of information than we can store or manipulate. Taking on more tasks increases the likelihood of errors. Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida of the University of California at Irvine infiltrated an office, cut 13 employees off from email for five days, strapped heart monitors to their chests, and tracked their computer use. Not surprisingly, the employees were less stressed when cut off from email. In a 2010 study by Bergman found that multitasking leads to a 40% decrease in productivity, increased stress and a 10% IQ. What’s the effect of a 10 point drop in IQ? The same as losing a night of sleep. More than two times the effect of smoking marijuana. Multitasking and Cognitive Switching are Different, though equally detrimental. While Multitasking requires that your brain store more information than it is capable of, switching occurs when you switch back and forth between tasks. Neuroscience tells us that when we switch back and forth between tasks we lose efficiency. It takes seconds for our brain to re-orient. The lost time adds up to lost productivity. Here’s three things to consider doing to boost your productivity and brain power:

  • Set a deadline. Nothing increases focus than needing to meet a deadline.

  • Turn off email notifications and check email regularly at two specific times per day.

  • Alert co-workers, family, friends that you are on a mission and won’t be available for a certain amount of time. Stick to your boundary.

Tatiana Armstrong