How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health

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Multitasking seems like a great way to get a lot done at once. But research has shown that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40%.

What is it that makes multitasking such a productivity killer? It might seem like you are accomplishing multiple things at the same time, but what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down.

What Is Multitasking?

  • Performing two or more tasks simultaneously
  • Switching back and forth from one thing to another
  • Performing a number of tasks in rapid succession

Does Multitasking Make You More Productive?

Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now. Obviously, you are reading this article, but chances are good that you are also doing several things at once. Perhaps you're also listening to music, texting a friend, checking your email in another browser tab, or playing a computer game.

If you are doing several different things at once, then you may be what researchers refer to as a "heavy multitasker." And you probably think that you are fairly good at this balancing act. According to a number of different studies, however, you are probably not as effective as you think you are.

Research has demonstrated that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing so many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability.

In order to determine the impact of multitasking, psychologists asked study participants to switch tasks and then measured how much time was lost by switching. In one study conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than when they repeated the same task.

Another study, by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer, found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.

The Importance of Executive Function

In the brain, multitasking is managed by executive functions. These control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task

Moving through these may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly. This might not be a big deal when you are folding laundry and watching television at the same time. However, if you are in a situation where safety or productivity is important, such as when you are driving in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical.

Practical Applications for Multitasking Research

Meyer suggests that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks. Now that you understand the potential detrimental impact of multitasking, you can put this knowledge to work to increase your productivity and efficiency.

The next time you find yourself multitasking when you are trying to be productive, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish. Eliminate distractions and try to focus on one task at a time.

Is Multitasking Bad for Your Brain?

At any given moment you might be texting a friend, switching between multiple windows on your computer, listening to the blare of the television, and talking on the phone all at once! When you do get a quiet moment where nothing is demanding our attention, you might find yourself unable to avoid the distraction of your favorite apps or social media sites.

Multitasking certainly isn't anything new, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new dimension to the multitasking puzzle. While we know that all this is not good for productivity, is it possible that it might actually be bad for brain health?

Even people who are considered heavy multitaskers are not actually very good at multitasking. In one study, Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass found that people who were considered heavy multitaskers were actually worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details.

This is particularly surprising because it was assumed that this is something that heavy multitaskers would actually be better at. But that wasn't the only problem these high multitaskers faced. They also showed greater difficulty when it came to switching from one task to another and were much less mentally organized.

What was the most frightening about the results, Nass later suggested, was that these results happened even when these heavy multitaskers were not multitasking. The study revealed that even when chronic multitaskers were focusing on a single task, their brains were less effective and efficient.

"We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought," Nass told NPR in a 2009 interview.

Teens and Multitasking

Experts also suggest that the negative impact of chronic, heavy multitasking might be the most detrimental to adolescent minds. At this age, in particular, brains are busy forming important neural connections. Spreading attention so thin and constantly being distracted by different streams of information might have a serious, long-term, negative impact on how these connections form.

Minimizing the Negative Consequences of Multitasking

So is the damage from multitasking permanent, or will putting an end to multitasking undo the damage? Nass says that while further investigations are needed, the current evidence suggests that people who stop multitasking will be able to perform better. To avoid the possible deleterious impact of multitasking:

  • Limit the number of things you juggle at any given time to just two tasks. 
  • Use the "20-minute rule." Instead of constantly switching between tasks, try to fully devote your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the other.

Multitasking Isn't Always Bad

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking (using more than one form of media or type of technology at once) might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. Study participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage.

The participants then completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when the item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better on the search when the sound was presented, indicating that they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

"Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing," the study's authors noted.

A Word From Verywell

Be aware of the times when you're multi-tasking. There's a good chance you might do it so much that you don't even notice when you're doing it. Doing one task at a time may help you become more productive and it may make each task more enjoyable.

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  2. Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans, JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switchingJ Exp Psychol Human. 2001;27(4):763-797. doi:10.1037/0096-1523.27.4.763

  3. Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. PNAS USA. 2009;106(37):15583-15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106

  4. NPR. Multitasking may not mean higher productivity. August 28, 2009.

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