Why multitasking is a myth that causes more harm than good

Posted September 28

Multitasking can drain your energy quicker than doing things one at a time, slow down brainpower and possibly even cause brain damage. (Deseret Photo)

Multitasking is a myth that drains energy, decreases performance, prevents absorbing new information and may be related to brain damage, experts say.

Multitasking suggests doing more than one task at the same time, but what’s actually happening is that you’re rapidly switching between activities, Quartz reported.

“That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,” Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, told Quartz. “People eat more, they take more caffeine. Often what you really need in that moment isn’t caffeine, but just a break. If you aren’t taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won’t benefit from that extra cup of coffee.”

Perhaps the lesser known, but more serious, consequence of multitasking is that it may hurt intellectual performance and be related to brain damage. Forbes reported in 2014 that University of Sussex researchers found that people who are high multitaskers have less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, which governs empathy and cognitive and emotional control. It’s unknown if multitasking damages the brain or if those who have brain damage are predisposed to multitasking.

Similarly, a study performed by the University of London found that multitasking lowered IQ scores as badly as if the participant had stayed up all night or had smoked marijuana, according to Forbes.

Not all tasks are created equal, though. If you’re doing something simple such as laundry, then it’s fine if you read a book at the same time, Hal Pashler, psychology professor at UC San Diego, told Quartz.

The opposite of multitasking is, obviously, focusing on one thing. And Bloomberg had some tips for accomplishing that:

  • Do the hardest task first in the morning, rather than working on it in stages throughout the day. With concentration and focus, morning can be the most productive time of the day.
  • Detach yourself from the routine and seek alone time, perhaps with something as simple as a walk followed by some time sitting under a tree.
  • “Close the apps. Shut down the texting, and reimagine your relationship with thinking.”
The parenting blog The Stir had some tips for breaking away from multitasking, provided by Samantha Ettus, a work-life balance expert and author of "The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction”:

  • Look at it as “getting your priorities straight,” not “breaking a habit.” You’re not necessarily doing less work.
  • Write a to-do list of everything you need to do, even things you’re pretty sure you won’t forget.
  • Act as if each task is the most interesting thing you can be doing. Use a laser focus and eagerness, and if that’s not enough, “fake it until you make it.”
  • Take it slow. Multitasking isn’t just something you quit cold turkey, so instead watch your daily habits, stick to the to-do list and patiently check off each item, one at a time.

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