The stress of multitasking

I’ve always had the belief that I’m good at multitasking and it’s something I used to take pride in, that’s until I looked at the research around multitasking and realised how perhaps it wasn’t the best solution to being more productive and less stressed.

Do you try to talk on the phone and read an email all at once? Or perhaps you have so much on that you find yourself switching frantically between tasks and not making enough progress with either of them.

Attention multitaskers, your brain may be in trouble.

When we are overwhelmed and overburdened with work, it’s tempting to try and tackle everything at once yet research suggests that this approach is likely to not only make you feel more stressed but also achieve less. Despite what we believe, one task at a time is actually best.

I know that we would all like to be able to handle multiple tasks at once and because of the pressure we work under, often we attempt this. Unfortunately though the human brain is not capable of concentrating on more than one complex task at a time and trying to solve too many problems at once is undoubtedly more stressful. Multitasking could actually damage our brains.

Research has shown that multitasking can cause harmful effects on our brains by three mechanisms. Firstly it increases the production of the stress hormone cortical which if maintained too high for too long can have many negative biological consequences for our bodies. Secondly it burns through the brain’s glucose at an accelerated rate which may leave you feeling low in energy and drained. Lastly it stimulates the release of the reward neurotransmitter Dopamine every time you encounter new information. This creates a similar feedback loop to addiction which drives us to keep seeking out increasing levels of new information and makes you less able to stay focused.

So at a biological level, multitasking heightens stress and confusion and reduces your ability to be efficient. By multitasking and switching our attention rapidly from one task to another, we pay a big mental price.

A number of studies have looked into whether multitaskers have an edge and are able to exert superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to but again and again, it’s been shown that actually one task at a time is best.

Research has suggested that:

  • Juggling multiple tasks makes subjects less productive and more prone to errors
  • Multitaskers consistently underperform compared to single taskers (one study showed people were 40% slower at problem solving when trying to multitask)
  • It temporarily reduces subjects IQ by as much as 15 points whilst increasing levels of self-reported stress by 40-100%

So when you have a lot to do, science suggests that picking one task at a time may help you to finish faster.

However there are very specific conditions where multitasking may be possible without having any negative consequences.

Mixing a mental task with a mindless one, those tasks you do on autopilot without thinking such as hanging out your washing whilst speaking to a friend on the phone. Because these use different regions of the brain, they are possible without creating stress within our brains.

Some people find tasks more stressful than other people because they require you to stay unnaturally still. Is this you? Some people need to keep moving! A study in the prestigious Lancet argues that doodling actually aids concentration and may alleviate stress by activating neural networks in the brain that promote cognition. Fidget widgets like stress balls may also be useful in stressful situations where there is boredom and indecision by helping the brain regulate the effects of stress.

I’m sorry to conclude that multitasking your way through life might not be the best approach. So save yourself and your brain the stress and perform better by tackling one task at a time.

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