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Why Multitasking Is a Really Bad Thing

by STEVE SISGOLD August 25, 2015

Juggling too much compounds stress. The pressure we put on ourselves to get more done in a day than we possibly can, coupled with our reliance on smart tools, forces the brain to constantly switch between tasks. This overloads our capacity to process information. 

The result is burnout.

Professor Earl Miller, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scanned the brains of volunteers while they performed different tasks. What he found is quite interesting. When people are presented with a number of visual stimulants, only one or two of them tend to activate the brain. This suggests that we really only focus on one or two items in our visual field at time.


When we perform similar tasks at the same time (writing someone an e-mail while talking on the phone with someone else), the two tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.

Studies show that this common practice short-circuits the brain and sabotages us so we work less efficiently and eventually burn out. Some scientists go so far as to postulate that we can't and don't actually multitask, we merely jump back and forth between different neural circuits so fast that we barely notice that we stopped paying attention to task A when we switched to task B. If task A goes on automatic, even for a mere millisecond, we run the risk of making a mistake that cannot be undone, like pressing send on that e-mail we wish we had never sent. 

Additionally some studies show that many people have a stress response when they are unable to access their devices. Every experience "etches" neural pathways in our brain and central nervous system and stores corresponding information, sensations, and emotions in our body.

Even just thinking about multitasking can cause a change in your body. Glenn Wilson, PhD, a psychiatrist at the University of London, reported on this phenomenon a few years ago.

Dr. Wilson found that being in a situation where you are able to text and e-mail at the same time—perhaps sitting at your desk—can knock 10 points off your IQ. This is similar to the head fog caused by losing a night's sleep.

This is why Dr. Miller warns against multitasking: "People can't do it very well, and when they say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself."

An American study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychologyfound that it took students far longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks. In fact, they were as much as 40 percent slower when they switched from one task to another. The same study found that multitasking has a negative physical effect, prompting the release of stress hormones and adrenaline.

So not only does multitasking affect our mental clarity, but switching between tasks also makes us less efficient. This can trigger a vicious cycle: We work hard at multitasking, take longer to get things done, then feel stressed and harried, which compels us to attempt more multitasking. Once again we only have so much capacity before we break down and implode or explode.

Studies by Gloria Mark, PhD, an interruption scientist at the University of California, show that when people are frequently diverted from one task to another, they work faster but produce less. After 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people report significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.

The bottom line is this: Our high-tech addictions place an additional load of stress on our bodies. Being Whole Body Intelligent means you detect stress as it is building, before it wreaks havoc, and then choose to limit stressors like overusing smart tools and multitasking.