The myth of multitasking

Just because something’s a new normal doesn’t mean it’s good for us. 

Modern-life habits can come at a cost.

Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, holding and juggling many balls in the air at the same time. It’s a badge-of-honor for many, and is becoming an expected ability. Email has made this problematic, and texting and instant messaging has made it even worse.

While we may pride ourselves at our multitasking ability, researchers tell us we’re probably not as good at it as we think we are. We may be fooling ourselves.

Whether it’s doing two things at once, quickly switching back-and-forth between a few jobs, or doing many tasks in quick succession, the belief that multitasking saves time and makes us more efficient is a myth. 

Our brains aren’t made to work that way and it might be hurting us more than helping.

While modern computers are designed to have multiple browser windows open, our brains are not. 

What we’ve come to believe as multitasking isn’t really that at all. What we’re doing is quickly switching between several tasks, and in doing so, not only does our work suffer, but so does our health. Multitasking comes at a cost. 

Converging evidence finds multitasking:

  • Reduces our productivity – it takes longer to complete tasks, by as much as 40%;
  • Reduces our cognitive ability, reducing our IQ by 10 – 15%;
  • Makes us more prone to errors;
  • Makes it harder to filter out distractions and irrelevant information;
  • Inhibits our ability to remember what we’ve done or learned;
  • Reduces creativity and problem-solving;
  • Creates inattentional blindness – we don’t notice what’s happening in the moment;
  • Increases the stress response in our bodies.

It may feel like we’re getting more done, but we’re not. 

We’re developing bad brain-habits. Studies reveal multitasking causes our IQ to fall to levels similar to a person who is sleep deprived or who has smoked marijuana. Yikes!

Multitasking is exhausting, and it activates the stress response in our bodies, causing increases in the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which over time, has harmful implications for our health. It can easily lead to mistakes, causing us additional stress.

Quickly checking things off our to-do list feels good, because we get a hit of dopamine for completing a task, but many of those quick things we complete aren’t helping us accomplish the big things requiring our full attention. 

Researchers at Stanford found heavy multitaskers were less mentally organized, and these effects lingered even when they weren’t multitasking.

Multitasking during meals can cause us to over-eat. I recall a mindfulness student who was horrified at the thought of eating her meal without the distraction of technology. To her, it just wasn’t efficient to simply enjoy a meal. Using meal time as an opportunity to check our inbox or social media easily leads to over-eating and we miss out on the pleasure-benefits of noticing our food.

As the pace of life and demands increase, the modern tendency is to try and cram it all in simultaneously. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex and feel spit-out at the end of the day.

Technology is wonderful, but the immediacy demands created by the way we live life keeps us on high alert. The constant notifications of emails and texts arriving are distractions. 

It’s easy to get hooked on the feeling multitasking brings. The hits of adrenaline and dopamine can become addictive, even though they’re not good for us in the long run. It can cost us our health and prevent us from using all of our intelligence. 

Creating habits to assist ourselves in becoming more focused, truly productive and creative can be as simple as creating a schedule for checking emails, turning off text notifications, and avoiding the use of multiple devices at one time, such as watching TV and checking our phone.

Making it a habit to pause, breathe and stretch between tasks allows our brains to make the switch.  These simple practices support our health, our happiness, and our intelligence. 


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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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