The dangers of multi-tasking

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Catching up with work or email while travelling makes sense.

But how many of us are guilty of checking email when we’re on the phone, or taking calls when driving or looking after the kids? For busy people, it’s often tempting to do several things at the same time.  In measured, conscious bursts, there are times when it can genuinely increase productivity.  However, for most people, most of the time, multi-tasking is dangerous. It makes us frazzled, distracted and ineffective.

An American study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology recently found multitasking has a negative physical effect, prompting the release of stress hormones and adrenaline.

Advances in medical-scanning technology mean we can now watch what happens in the brain when people try to perform more than one complex task at a time. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scanned volunteers’ heads while they performed different tasks and found that the human brain doesn’t smoothly multi-task like an expert juggler; it switches frantically between tasks like a bad amateur plate-spinner. The constant effort this requires means that doing even just two or three things at once puts far more demand on our brains compared with if we did them one after another.

In other words, our brains have to skitter to and fro inefficiently between tasks. Miller explains that the real problem occurs when we try to concentrate on the two tasks we are dealing with, because this then causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity.   This is particularly true when we try to perform similar tasks at the same time – such as writing an email and talking on the phone – as they compete to use the same part of the brain. As a result, your brain simply slows down.

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Even just thinking about multi-tasking can cause this log-jam, as Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, reported a few years ago. He found that just being in a situation where you are able to text and email – perhaps sitting at your desk – can knock a whole ten points from your IQ. This is similar to the head-fog caused by losing a whole night’s sleep.

In contrast, choosing to focus on one thing at a time creates a clear head, better outcomes and better relationships – better relationships with our work colleagues, our friends, our partners and our children. 

Changing from multi-tasking to focusing on one thing at a time requires making a conscious choice and changing habits.  If you are interested in learning more about how to do this, contact us.