There hasn’t been a busier time in the history of mankind than today’s fast-paced digital world. Every day, we’re constantly barraged by an infinite stream of information, emails, and social media notifications, while trying to keep up with demands from work, family, and friends. Multitasking seems like the norm of everyday life now, but in reality, is it possible to multitask and still do things the right way?
Our response to the overwhelm of trying to handle so many tasks simultaneously has been to do more than one thing at a time. We respond to text messages while completing important projects, send emails while watching TV shows, and scroll through social media feeds while chatting with friends and family.
Is it possible to multitask in this way? Even though it may seem like we’re getting a lot done, multitasking could cost us precious time and energy.
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Can Humans Actually Multitask?
Simply put, the answer is NO. Your mind works similarly to a gearbox. Furthermore, each work must be completed at a specific rate using a unique process. You get your brain to shift processing information when you multitask, just like you shift gears according to the speed required on a certain road.
Cars automate all other modifications that must be made in addition to multiple gear shifts. Your brain, on the other hand, is you. As a result, every time you shift your mental gears, you must focus on altering your thoughts, goals, procedures, steps, rules, and other factors. You’ll eventually expend a lot of energy and still be less productive.
Moreover, human reliance on technology has been both a boon and a bane. While it makes our work easier, it also happens to make us delusional. As technology enables people to perform more activities simultaneously, the notion that we are capable of multitasking has never been more prevalent than it is today. However, researchers maintain that this is still a myth — and they have the facts to back up their claim.
According to Stanford study, multitaskers are worse performers and struggle because they can’t filter out unnecessary information, slowing down the completion of the cognitive task at hand.
Furthermore, studies show that the brain takes much longer to notice new objects (slowing job completion even further) and that we retain significantly less of what we learn while multitasking.
We are in a constant race of proving our metal in this competitive world, and being laid back or being secure in our comfort zone is an unacceptable norm. Hence, we strive to complete as many tasks as possible, that too within a time limit. Such goals are not only difficult to achieve but toxic to ourselves. It is recommended to focus on a single objective, give your best, and then switch to another.
Can Your Brain Do Two Things At Once?
When we try to focus on something, our prefrontal cortex is the command center of the brain. It is connected to both halves of the brain and coordinates other brain parts required for attention and goal attainment. With our brain’s immense computational power, it’s logical to imagine that the cortex can perform two jobs independently, but this isn’t the case.
When you try to focus on two, three, or four tasks at once, you may think that you are focused on two, three, or four things at once, but your brain is simply shifting attention very quickly. This transition can happen practically instantly in a healthy brain, leading people to assume they are juggling or can handle multiple tasks when, in reality, they are simply swapping the central focus for the brain in a matter of a few seconds.
Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., and David Meyer, Ph.D., conducted four tests in which young adults shifted between answering math problems or identifying geometric objects in 2001. The studies showed that: When switching from one activity to another, the participants lost time on all tasks.
Participants lost more time as the tasks became more difficult. As a result, switching between more complicated jobs took much longer. When the participants moved to tasks that were new to them, the time costs were similarly higher. When they shifted to tasks they were more familiar with, they were able to catch up faster.
Is There Such Thing As Multitasking?
Individuals can only do one thing at a time in actuality. And what we call multitasking is simply flipping between tasks quickly rather than performing more than one thing at a time.
“Context switching” is a term that describes exactly what we’re doing. Every time you transfer contexts or tasks, your brain must switch from one thing to another, and this process takes time before you can fully tackle the following activity. The rapid succession of tasks may create a delusional multi-tasking effect, but it is quite the opposite.
The more things you switch between each day, the longer it takes your brain to switch over. If it takes 5 minutes to get your brain wired for a given complex activity, and you try to complete 30 activities in a day, you’ve wasted hours.
The fewer things you concentrate on in a single day, the more productive time you will have.
12 Reasons Why You Should Stop Multitasking
Here are 12 scientific reasons why you should stop multitasking today.
1. It Kills Productivity
Each time we switch from one task to another, there’s a cognitive cost that hurts our productivity.
According to Gloria Mark, professor in the department of informatics at the University of California, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after an interruption.
We’d like to think that it’s possible to juggle multiple tasks at once, but it comes with the cost of reducing the quality and quantity of attention applied to a task.
As a result, your productivity is less than that of someone who focuses on one task at a time.
2. It Could Endanger Your Life
There are certain situations where multitasking may endanger your life.
For example, chatting on the phone while driving or texting whilst crossing a busy road could significantly compromise your ability to maintain safety.
Multitasking isn’t worth your energy or time, and especially not your life.
3. It Could Damage Your Brain
A study by researchers from the University of Sussex (UK) compared the amount of time people spent on media devices, like texting and watching TV, to their brain structure. The MRI scans of their brains showed that participants who multitasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region responsible for empathy and emotional control.
According to the lead researcher, neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh:
“I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”
4. It Could Decrease Intelligence
A study conducted by the University of London found that adult participants who multitasked experienced drops in IQ points to the average range of an 8-year-old child.
Imagine the effects of writing an important paper or email to a client while responding to texts on your phone. There won’t be much difference in the quality of your work and that of an 8-year-old child.
If you’re struggling to deliver high-quality work on a consistent basis, make sure to eliminate distractions in your environment and avoid multitasking. This will help to raise the quality of your work.
5. It Causes Chronic Stress and Anxiety
There are many causes of stress and anxiety, but one of the major culprits is multitasking.
When we constantly switch between tasks, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in our body. This hormone creates stress, tires us out, and leaves us mentally fatigued.
Then, anxiety builds up, and we act impulsively, which creates more stress. The cycle then repeats itself, creating a constant state of stress and anxiety.
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed and stressed out while trying to be productive, check out this video for some guidance:
6. It Worsens Decision-Making Skills
Multitasking also hurts your ability to make good decisions. Switching tasks requires that you spend precious energy deciding what to do or what not to do.
For example, if you’re sending important emails to your boss while responding to text messages, you’d have to make decisions immediately:
How do I respond to this email? Should I respond to this text now? Should I take a break from work?
These decisions deplete your willpower muscles and causes decision fatigue, a psychological term referring to the deterioration of good decisions after making a long series of decisions. 
In addition, when an important scenario arises for you to practice self-control or delay gratification, you’re more likely to act on impulse, and you won’t have enough willpower to take effective action towards the important things in your life.
In effect, multitasking causes a downward spiral of bad decisions that cost time, energy, and money.
7. It Hurts Learning
A study published in the journal Computers and Education found that, on average, participants who used Facebook while texting and doing schoolwork had a lower GPA and grades than those who didn’t. According to the researchers:
“Human information processing is insufficient for attending to multiple input streams and for performing simultaneous tasks.”
Quality attention is crucial for learning, but multitasking reduces our ability to focus on the task at hand. As a result of low levels of attention, learning effectively is much harder than otherwise.
8. It Kills Focus
According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, when you multitask, parts of your brain reward you for losing focus and switching tasks with a rush of dopamine. The same parts of the brain that help you stay focused on a task become trained to look for distractions.
Therefore, when you’re working, you’ll feel anxious to check your email and social media to search for a dopamine rush from something else.
Once multitasking becomes a habit, it becomes very difficult to break the cycle of the dopamine rush linked to lack of focus and low productivity.
9. It Kills Creativity
Imagine this scenario:
You’re writing an important paper, and an incoming email from a work colleague pops up on your phone. You stop writing and respond to the email.
When you return back to writing, your brain has just spent valuable energy refocusing on the task at hand that could have been used for creative thinking. As a result, not only have you wasted energy, but also creative juice for your work.
Creative thinking requires a good level of concentration and attention. The problem with multitasking is that innovative ideas that crossed your mind could pass you by if you don’t stay focused.
10. It May Reduce Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions, in addition to the emotions of others. In general, emotional intelligence includes core skills, like emotional awareness, the ability to apply emotions to critical thinking and problem solving, and the ability to manage emotions.
According to Travis Bradberry, an emotional intelligence expert, multitasking may damage a part of the brain—the anterior cingulate cortex that is responsible for emotional intelligence, a trait found within 90% of top performers.
Multitasking reduces the speed and quality of work and worsens concentration and attention to detail. Additionally, multitasking in social gatherings may be an indication of low self and social awareness, two crucial emotional intelligence skills for success at work.
11. It Causes Overwhelm and Burnout
Ever wonder why you feel constantly tired, even after a good night of sleep or a long vacation?
The constant switching between tasks requires a lot of attention and energy. When your brain shifts attention from one task to another, the prefrontal cortex of the brain loses oxygenated glucose, which is required for staying focused on tasks.
The more tasks you switch between, the more oxygenated glucose your brain burns. After a short period of time, you’ll feel overwhelmed and tired, because of the loss of nutrients in the brain.
12. It Can Harm Memory and Concentration
New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin suggests that multitasking could damage our brains even more so than smoking marijuana.
According to Levitin, the main ingredient in marijuana, cannabinol, negatively affects the same receptors in the brain responsible for memory and concentration. And multitasking could cause greater cognitive losses.
Next time you’re about to multitask, think of the similar effects of smoking marijuana. If you wouldn’t use drugs while completing an important task, then why multitask?
So, is it possible to multitask and still be productive? According to research, the simple answer is no, as multitasking negatively impacts our productivity across the board. Multitasking is a bad habit that has long-term, harmful effects on your health, well-being, and productivity.
However, there’s hope if you take charge of your life today and decide to pay attention to a single task each time it presents itself.
When working on important tasks, eliminate as many distractions as possible, including your phone, email access, and people. Every day, create time blocks of 10 to 30 minutes for focused work. Take short breaks every two hours to recoup your energy and regain focus.
Most importantly, do one thing at a time, and you’ll be productive for a lifetime.
More Tips on Multitasking
Featured photo credit: Andreas Strandman via unsplash.com