Taking on more than one task at a time, especially mentally involving tasks, can have a toll on productivity and is bad for your health. Psychologists at the Stanford University who are studying what happens to cognition when people try to perform multiple tasks simultaneously have found that multitasking can damage an area of the brain that is critical to task completion. The study found that people who have to regularly work with several streams of electronic media often fail to pay attention and may not be able to recall information or seamlessly transition from one task to another as well as those who complete one task before moving to the next.
Interestingly, the study also found that there is nothing like being skilled at multitasking. You’ve probably come across people who believe they can cook while on the phone without any problems. While this may seem like a good thing, it actually makes them more likely to make mistakes than if they completed one task at a time. According to the findings, heavy multitaskers – those who feel they have specialized in multitasking – have trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information. They also take more time to complete the respective tasks than if they tackled one task at a time.
This is because the human brain can only focus on one task at a time. When you multitask, you essentially toggle between tasks. This switching can cause a lot of problems.
Switching is accomplished through what scientists call executive control. Human executive control processes happen in two distinct but complementary stages. The first stage is called “goal shifting.” In this stage, a person decides that “I want to do task B instead of task A.” The second stage is called “rule activation.” Rule activation happens after goal shifting and involves “turning off the rules for task A and turning on the rules for task B.” These processes help us move from one task to the next, which can be helpful. But there are always associated costs, including productivity and safety.
In some cases, switching costs can be small, perhaps just a tenth of a second. Sometimes though, as you switch back and forth between multiple tasks, the costs can add up quickly.
Multitasking can also lower IQ and cause brain damage
It’s not just about performance and efficiency though. Multitasking can also lower your IQ and potentially damage your brain. A study at the London University found that people who multitask during cognitive tasks experienced diminishing IQ levels similar to what they’d experience if they stayed up all night. Some participating male adults lost as many as 15 IQ points, and were reduced to thinking like 8-year-olds.
Even worse, multitasking can cause permanent cognitive damage. In the past, it was believed that cognitive damage from multitasking was only temporary. But new research suggests otherwise, with results showing that heavy multitaskers have less brain density in the cingulate cortex which is an area of the brain responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.
This basically means that heavy multitaskers are likely to suffer from lowered emotional awareness. In other words, you might make people angry without even noticing it. Take an example of a self-professed multitasker who can’t stop fiddling with their phone during an important meeting. Everyone else in the meeting will be annoyed by the behavior. But because you’re emotionally unaware, you’ll not notice.
If left unchecked, such behavior can hurt your career in the long run. Studies show that people who constantly multitask in meetings and other social settings exhibit low self and social awareness, two critical emotional intelligence (EQ) components. When you have a low EQ, your chances of succeeding at work are minimal. After testing over a million people, Talent Smart found that 90% of top performers have high EQ levels.
Stay healthy and safe, avoid multitasking
These findings don’t mean that you can’t occasionally pick a call in the middle of reading a novel. That’s still acceptable. What you must understand though is that indulging in heavy multitasking comes at a cost.
Even if it might not immediately damage your brain, multitasking slows you down and can seriously affect the quality of your work. When you constantly multitask, you also aggravate any difficulties you might already have with organization, concentration, and attention to detail.
So, work on one task to completion before getting started on a new one. And, as you work on that one task, don’t let your mind float to other tasks. Above all, learn to control your tech consumption. Phones, PCs, and tablets are the biggest cause of unnecessary multitasking in the digital world. If you can learn to control how and when you use these devices, you’ll have won half the battle.
Gentle reminder: The information on this article is not meant to replace a qualified healthcare professional and should not be considered as professional advise. Please seek appropriate medical help when necessary.