In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, the term “multitasking” has become a regular part of the cultural vocabulary, because we do it all the time. We multitask when we juggle several work projects at once, we multitask when we answer work emails while cooking dinner, we even multitask while driving in our cars — jeopardizing our own safety and that of others.
The reason people try to do so many of these things at once is because they don’t think they have a choice — there’s simply too much going on and too much to get done. The problem has become so pervasive that many people have trouble focusing on one thing at a time even when they want to.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are may be what researchers call a “chronic multitasker.” And chances are, it’s hurting your productivity.
If you chronically multitask, it’s probably because you believe you’re getting more done that way. The reality, however, is that you’re really not. Over and over, the research has shown that regardless of what you might think, you are not a good multitasker. In fact, no one is. The human brain just isn’t wired for it, and chronic multitasking can actually have lasting negative effects on how your brain functions.
What exactly is considered multitasking?
- Trying to do more than one thing simultaneously.
- Switching back and forth between different tasks.
- Doing several things in rapid succession.
Sure, sometimes it’s harmless — for instance, checking social media while watching the game. But in many circumstances, multitasking can be seriously detrimental, or even dangerous (think texting while driving).
The Reality of Chronic Multitasking
- You’re not accomplishing as much as you think you are. A 2009 Stanford University study found that students who considered themselves good multitaskers actually performed worse at multitasking than those who preferred to do one thing at a time. The multitaskers were slower to switch between tasks, and had difficulty organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information.
- Your short-term memories can only store 5-9 things at once. When you multitask, you’re trying to hang on to too much information at once, so you ultimately end up retaining less of it.
- Switching between tasks slows you down and distracts you. Researcher David Meyer, who has studied multitasking, said that frequently switching between tasks creates mental blocks that can decrease productivity by up to 40 percent.
- Your IQ is lower when you multitask. A University of London study found that there was a drop in IQ of study subjects when they were asked to perform several tasks simultaneously.
- Multitasking causes lasting cognitive damage. In the 2009 Stanford study, researchers found that even when chronic multitaskers were asked to focus on only one thing, they performed worse cognitively than those who don’t typically multitask.
- Your brain can’t operate as efficiently when you do too much at once. When you focus on one thing at a time, your entire brain tackles that task. When you try to do two things at once, half of your brain is dedicated to one task, and half of your brain is dedicated to the other — meaning you literally have less brainpower for each task. When try to do more than two things at one, you are at high risk of slowing yourself down and increasing your chances of making mistakes
The bottom line: chronic multitaskers have a harder time concentrating, switching between tasks, and recalling information. Generally, their brains don’t function as well, because they take on more than a human brain is built to handle.
“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” said Clifford Nass of the Stanford study. “They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
So what should you do instead? Nass recommends dedicating at least 20 minutes at a time to a single task before moving on to the next one.