In 2015, work projects, family activities, and everyday catastrophes can be overwhelming. Scratch that, life in general can be overwhelming. There is so much to do and so little time. Who can help you with that overwhelming to-do list? Who can help fit more than 24 hours in a day?
“I can!” A funny looking spirit raises his hand and jumps onto your shoulder. “I am multitasking, best friend to the information age!”
It is true, we live in a world in which multitasking seems to have replaced Labrador Retrievers as man’s best friend. With smart phones and internet, it has never been easier to get more than one thing done at a time.
“Think how much more you can fit in a day if you do two things at once!” Multitasking promises to be a salvation to overworked, overly stimulated 2015 humanoids.
Wait a minute! Don’t befriend that little spirit too fast. Multitasking may not be the faithful buddy you thought it was. Almost all friends have secrets, but researchers have been discovering some pretty dirty ones about multitasking. Here are 10 reasons why multitasking may not be a good friend after all:
1. Multitasking doesn’t exist
Recently scientists have been testing and retesting people’s ability to multitask. Turns out, your little buddy may have been a complete fraud all along. What we call multi-tasking isn’t multi-tasking at all. It is actually rapid task-switching.
Psychologists have determined that we cannot actually process two things at once. So when you are writing an email while talking on the phone, you aren’t processing both tasks at one time, instead you are rapidly switching cognitive resources from one task to another.
The research is in and the verdict is out—multitasking doesn’t really exist. Maybe we should save imaginary friends for our kindergarten children.
2. Multitasking wastes your time
So now that we have established that what we think is multi-tasking is actually just rapid task-switching, let’s look at the repercussions. In 2001, researchers Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer conducted studies to test the cost of “mental juggling.” They found that while our brain is fairly efficient at switching (it can take less than a tenth of a second), these wasted points of seconds add up rapidly (because as you “multitask” you are switching so often) and can cost you up to 40% productivity. It takes longer to complete two tasks at once than it does to get into the zone and finish one task at a time.
3. Multitasking encourages mistakes
Erik Altman, a psychologist at Michigan State University, decided to take a look at the effects of short-term distractions on the productivity of his students. He set 300 test subjects to complete basic tasks on the computer. He then distracted them with three-minute phone calls and other short and easy distractions. He found that:
Though the distractions took only three seconds and weren’t difficult tasks, students lost their places or made mistakes twice as often after those distractions as they did without interruptions.
The more you try to multi-task, the more mistakes you will make.
4. Multitasking stresses you out
Multitasking is a myth, an impossible task. And yet we are expected to do it all the time. How does your brain respond to impossible tasks? By releasing adrenaline and other stress-related hormones. These hormones may make you feel pumped or on edge for a little while, but they won’t make what is difficult any easier. Over time, this steady flow of stress hormones can become a hazard to your psychological health.
5. Multitasking steals your memories
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco decided to conduct studies to test the relationship between working memory (short term memory) and multitasking. They asked participants to study a picture of nature, but then abruptly switched to a different image for a few seconds. While their main task was to prove that your ability to refocus after being distracted diminishes with age, they also uncovered interesting relationships between working memory and distractions. One scientist, Adam Gazzaley, says:
The impact of distractions and interruptions reveals the fragility of working memory. This is an important fact to consider, given that we increasingly live in a more demanding, high-interference environment, with a dramatic increase in the accessibility and variety of electronic media and the devices that deliver them, many of which are portable.
In other words, our short term memory may be more fragile than we think. If you are allowing yourself to be distracted, you may be forgetting important information.
6. Multitasking makes you fat
You know that friend that is always challenging you to eat more than you know is healthy? At times you wonder, is it his life goal to make me fat? That is exactly the kind of friend multitasking turns out to be.
For a long time we have blamed television for making us fat because it tends to turn us into lazy couch potatoes who don’t want to exercise. That may still be true, but now scientists say the bigger problem could be that T.V. offers a perfect eating distraction. If you eat while doing something else, you are less likely to feel full and more likely to eat more than necessary.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, not only does distracted eating cause you to eat more at meals (because you feel less full), it also tends to lead to extra eating later on because you don’t have strong memories of what you already ate!
Some say that by simply getting into the habit of mindful (even deliberately slow) eating, you can lose a substantial amount of weight.
7. Multitasking ruins relationships
When you have an acquaintance who is hurting your deepest most important relationships, it is probably time to bid him goodbye. Multitasking may be that buddy you need to lock out.
Human beings crave attention. That means, when you are on a date or playing with your kids, all they really want is for you to focus on them. With smart phones in hand it certainly is tempting to be answering emails, writing tweets, and taking notes during your daughter’s talent show. Think of how much you can get done! However, is it really worth the disappointment your daughter feels when she realizes you don’t care about her enough to put your phone in your pocket for just a few minutes?
Wendy Clark, president of strategic marketing for Coca-Cola in North America, is a very busy woman. However, she has decided to never allow phones at her family dinner table. She says,
We need to set aside some time where we forcibly just stay with each other and create something that is greater than 140 characters.
Researchers at the University of Sussex claim to have shown that when people talk with cell phones nearby, (even if they aren’t using them!) they report less satisfaction and trust in their relationships.
8. Multitasking is fooling you
According to a study at the University of Utah, if you are one of the many people who consider yourself an expert multitasker, that means you are actually quite bad at it. They tested cell phone conversations while driving on people who claim to be expert multitaskers and others who said they don’t often do it. To their surprise, the self-proclaimed experts performed significantly worse than those who didn’t do it often. So those of you who consider yourself better-than-average, take heed!
9. Multitasking could be damaging your brain
In a recent article for Forbes.com, Travis Bradberry claims that multi-tasking actually lowers your IQ. She says,
A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.
Not only can it make you dumber while you are doing it, multitasking may also cause long term damage. New research from the University of Sussex compared MRI scans of people who use multiple devices simultaneously and people who don’t. They found that certain parts of multitasker’s brains were significantly less dense. More research is needed, but it looks like multitasking could actually physically affect your brain.
10. Multitasking is setting you back
In an age of information overload, it is easy to envy those that claim they can accomplish seven things at the same time. However, you may not be missing out on much. According to a New York Times article, researchers at Stanford tried in vain to find the secret benefits and super powers of multitaskers. The more they looked, the more negatives they found.
One lead researcher, Eyal Ophir, said,
We kept looking for multitaskers’ advantages in this study. But we kept finding only disadvantages. We thought multitaskers were very much in control of information. It turns out, they were just getting it all confused.
In the end, it looks like the best friend of 2015 may have a few dirty secrets too big to ignore. If you allow yourself to kiss multitasking goodbye despite the social pressure to embrace it, you will actually find yourself getting more done, getting it done better, and improving your quality of life.