Do Not Multitask

Brains are not designed for multitasking. When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as weel as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedabck loop, effectvely rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.

The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.  Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugarcoated tasks.

Learning new information while multitasking causes the information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Whithout the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve it.

So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ingoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even thought we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.

Summing-up: People can’t do multitasking very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves. And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business. The secret is to put systems in place to trick ourselves —to trick our brains— into staying on task when we need them to.

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