Stop multitasking – it’s bad for your health!

Posted on June 19, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
A pen on a diary

I once foolishly told my son that women are much better at multitasking than men. If ever there was an example of “pride comes before a fall,” then this claim would come back to bite me. When I’m writing, I’m quite irritable if asked, “Where are my clean socks?” and tend to either swear, grunt or pretend deafness. “But,” he crows, “I thought you were supposed to be able to multitask!” I thought I could too, but now it turns out I really should never have attempted it anyway.

The energetic eighties

The 80s was the decade that made multitasking a sought-after skill. I worked in an advertising agency that was nowhere near as chilled out as the fictional Sterling Cooper agency of TV series Mad Men, although if you’ve seen any of the series, let me tell you that a lot of the characters closely resemble several of the “mad men” I knew. It was the decade of Thatcherism and “Greed is Good” and you were only considered valuable by apparently effortlessly doing the work of three people simultaneously.

Definition of a monotasker

But, now we can all breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to research that reveals the monotasker is not a useless, under-achiever, but somebody who delivers a job well done. Apparently, this is a person who can work on an assignment without checking their mail, looking to see who’s just posted an update on Facebook or some other social media platform and doesn’t text friends while mid-task. I have just failed at monotasking because I quickly Googled “How many calories in 300g of pineapple” whilst writing this paragraph. Why? I’m eating pineapple at the same time as writing. That’s probably another monotasking fail!

The multitasking maladies

It should hardly come as a surprise that one of the effects of multitasking is that it raises levels of cortisol, the human body’s main stress hormone. But, it is quite a shocker to discover that it has an adverse effect on the brain as well. According to Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, a day spent multitasking can knock 10 points off our IQ, compared with spending the same period of time monotasking. We are less literally “scatter-brained” when we focus on one task at a time, as when we try to do several things at once, those thoughts and actions are leaping around in our brains like bare feet on hot coals. We are making our brains act more inefficiently; although we’ve been brainwashed into thinking we are actually being more efficient.

 

Woman relaxing in field of flowers

Brain scans reveal the proof

Technology allows us to demonstrate just what multitasking does to your brain. Dr Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, says that our brain scans show that we are never really multitasking, which is defined as doing several task simultaneously.  Instead, our brains are actually jumping from one neural pathway to another and back again, in its attempt to do what we want. Levitin compares the activity to watching “amateur plate spinners.”

The slow down effect

In effect it slows our brain down, particularly if we’re trying to do several tasks that use the same neural pathways. Talking while writing is an example of this, and so is complex physical co-ordination. On the other hand, we don’t have the same problem when doing two things at the same time if these tasks use different parts of the brain, for example eating and talking; even if you were told that you should “never speak while eating.”

Benefits of monotasking

Some of us may need to practise monotasking to acquire the skill, especially if we’ve been through ‘extreme multitasking conditioning’. However, the benefits are clear: we will use our intelligence more efficiently, we will reduce the production of cortisol, which is beneficial to our overall health, we will work more efficiently and we’ll be much more ‘available’ to the people we live with.

I shall also tell my son that talking to me while I’m writing is making my neurons leap around like a leprechaun and that he should have another look for his socks by himself if he prefers a chilled mother to a grumpy mum!

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by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.