Multitasking has become a household term these past few years as people have started believing that they can actually do various tasks at the same time. It has already become an essential tool for survival in today’s overloaded modern world. The thing is, it isn’t only done by professionals and working people as it is also happening among students, as well as to stay-at-home moms. However, even with so much commotion about it where people claim that they are really multitasking, the question remains if doing different things at the same time is actually effective.
What is multitasking?
When someone who is stirring the soup that’s boiling in a kettle on the stovetop is also slicing some vegetables, we say he is multitasking. When a vendor serves up food while mentally computing how much the total order costs, we say he is multitasking. When a mom listens to the radio drama while doing the laundry, we say she is multitasking. However, is it really true?
Multitasking can be described in three ways and these are:
- Performing two or more tasks at the same time
- Performing tasks one after another in rapid succession
- Moving from one task to another quickly
However, multitasking, according to scientists, is basically impossible to do because our brain isn’t wired to do that. According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist and Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, people cannot multitask very well and that we just cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. When people say they are multitasking, they are actually just shifting their focus from one thing to another at a fast speed. It is just impossible to do one thing and focus on another because of the interference between the tasks. If, for example, you are responding to an email while listening to your partner talk about this day, it would be close to impossible to do this because of the conflict between the two activities.
So what really does happen when we say we are multitasking?
Again, when a person does two or more things at the same time, he is actually just shifting his focus from one task to the other. And since this is a fairly easy thing to do for a healthy brain, it leads people to think that they are doing the tasks simultaneously. The fact is that there are two stages that complete the act of focusing which is controlled by the cortex—goal shifting and role activation.
- Goal shifting. This is the stage where the brain decides which task it will do and leaves the other one.
- Rule activation. After the brain shifts its focus, it moves to gathering the tenets for doing the next task it will do. This part may take time and will take even more time as a person ages.
However, this is not to discredit the amazing capacity of the brain. Of course, there are many things that people can do simultaneously like eating popcorn while watching a football game on TV, talking on the phone while fiddling with a pen, or walking in the parking while admiring the scenery. These are things that we do almost naturally and intuitively, but what scientists are referring to are the high-level brain functions. In the case where one reads a book while trying to write an email is extremely difficult because both tasks require the same part of the brain.
How does multitasking affect our productivity?
It is normal to think that multitasking results in productivity. After all, what we see is that two or more tasks are done simultaneously. However, it is the opposite that is true because frequently shifting from one task to another adversely impacts productivity. In various studies where people were tasked to do high-level brain activities simultaneously, the subjects were noted to have made more mistakes as they shifted from one activity to another. Plus, there is a delay when the brain does rule activation and gets itself set again for the rules or tenets of the task that it is about to do. As a result, productivity is decreased by 40 percent.
What are the impacts of multitasking on the brain?
Experts say that multitasking damages the brain’s ability to maintain focus and attention on a subject. As a person multitasks more frequently, the brain is prompted to take in more information and do more tasks without being particularly productive with any of them. The 2009 study conducted by Clifford Nass of Stanford University found that people who frequently multitasked didn’t do well with sorting out relevant from irrelevant information and had difficulty switching from one task to another. It is common to think that multitaskers should be good at this, but the opposite is true because the brain can only do so much.
The scariest part of the study is the observation that these things happened not only when the subjects were multitasking but also when they were doing only a single task. Sadly, the brains of multitaskers slowly lose their efficiency and effectiveness through time.
Can these impacts be undone?
Unfortunately, there is no one-way answer to this question since a lot of research is still required to delve into this part of the issue. However, scientists see strong evidence that people will begin to perform better and restore their focus once they limit their multitasking. People can also make use of apps that help lighten tasks like Skype, Trello, and Asana and connect them to Bridge24 which is another app that allows users more data control, better view, and enhanced reporting and exporting tools.
Here are other important tips to follow to avoid the impacts of multitasking.
- Nass suggests that individuals should learn to limit their tasks to just two at a time. This way, the brain only needs to shift attention and learn the rules of two tasks.
- Follow the 20-minute rule when doing tasks. A child who has to do her homework and also write a book report for English class should spend twenty minutes on the homework first, then, shift to the book report and spend another twenty minutes on it. This helps keep the brain from having to go back and forth between the two tasks which is ineffective.
Multitasking can already be considered as imperative in today’s fast-changing world. People are often left with little to choice but to just do it to get everything done. However, we should all be cautious at the same time because we might miss seeing its long-term effects. As suggested by the Stanford University study, we are still far from uncovering the ways to reverse the effects of multitasking. There is nothing wrong with not being overly productive at work. What’s more important is to have a good-quality output that is the result of having an eye for detail.