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Water Cooler: The true cost of multitasking

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 17, 2021

Researchers have discovered that multitasking, considered a strength, can actually diminish productivity.  (Pixabay)
Researchers have discovered that multitasking, considered a strength, can actually diminish productivity. (Pixabay)

Multitasking seems to be the inherent 21st-century lifestyle, given how rare it is these days to do something uninterrupted. As we work, we regularly receive notifications. As we wait, we scroll, research and communicate through our handheld computers, the smart phone. Multitasking incorporated itself into our lifestyles, and it isn’t the productive cognitive functioning for which we typically give it credit.

Just because multitasking seems to be working out, it doesn’t mean anything is getting done faster or better. The brain switches between both tasks, quickly enough that we don’t notice, but if anything, it really only diminishes our productivity. It generally results in us taking longer and being more prone to unnoticed errors.

The reason your brain can’t do two or more tasks at the same time is because it was never designed to do so. The prefrontal cortex covers the front part of the frontal lobe and it is responsible for executive functions, which is a general term for the regulation, management and control of cognitive processes, including our concentration, emotions, memory, actions, efforts and activity.

When the prefrontal cortex is concentrated, or exerting as certain amount of attentional control as it is referred to in psychology, the individual is choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. If while listening to a lecture or reading a book or are operating a vehicle, you are able to consistently process the incoming information, you know you are concentrated.

Most psychologists believe that executive functions such as concentration are broken up into two phases. The first phase is goal shifting, in which the brain zones in on one task instead of another. Next the brain begins the rule activation phase, in which it switches off the rules it uses for one task, and turns on the rules needed to perform the task, or goal, to which the brain has shifted.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology put multitasking to the test by asking participants to switch between categorizing geometric objects and solving math problems. When solving math, the brain is focused on the goal of solving problems and the rules it needs to know to do so, such as addition or multiplication. When switching to categorizing objects, the brain must now orient itself to that goal and then must recall the rules and principles of geometry to do so.

The researchers were able to confirm that switching tasks caused delays in productive functioning, even when the delay is only one-tenth of 1 second. They also found that unfamiliar and complex tasks made the delays longer. That is quick enough that we may not cognitively notice it, but one-tenth of a second is a long enough period of time to cause an accident when switching from driving and taking a call, or to bump into someone while walking when digging through your bag.

Not only does multitasking result in less accuracy and speed, it may also influence the structure of your brain.

A 2014 study from the Public Library of Science recruited 75 healthy adults and found through neuroimaging and questionnaires that those who reported the most multitasking performed worse on cognitive control tasks, showed more socio-emotional difficulties and had less gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex. That region is involved in decision making and impulse control. What the study could not determine is whether the multitasking caused less gray matter or if less gray matter led to the behavior of multitasking.

The temptation to multitask is nearly omnipresent, but for the sake of efficiency, accuracy and overall mental well-being, it is worth trying to focus on one thing at a time.

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