The Perils of Multitasking

Your smart phone can make you dumb.

Posted Aug 26, 2016

We live in the age of multitasking. Though a phenomenon of the young, older folks are being dragged into the age by the digital revolution in mobile electronic devices. Youngsters, as digital natives, are wired to multitask, but they don't realize how multitasking impairs their thinking skills. We call our phones "smart," but they can actually make us dumb. This may be one of the reasons that underperformance in schools is so common.

Older folks tend to be amazed and awed by the multitasking ability of the young. But those in all generations should realize that multitasking does not make you smarter or more productive.

Microsoft clip art/onlinecollege.org
Source: Microsoft clip art/onlinecollege.org

In school, multitasking interferes with learning. In the workplace, multitasking interferes with productivity and promotes stress and fatigue. Multitasking creates an illusion of parallel activity, but actually it requires mental switching from one task to another. This drains the glucose fuel needed by the brain, making the brain less efficient and creating the feeling of being tired.

Neuroscientist, Dan Levitan, reminds us that multitasking is stressful, as indicated by increased secretion of cortisol and adrenalin. He cites work showing that IQ can temporarily drop 10 points during multitasking. A brain-scan study showed that new information gets processed in the wrong parts of the brain and not in the hippocampus where it should go in order to be remembered. The most insidious aspect of multitasking is that it programs the brain to operate in this mode, creating a debilitating thinking habit that is permanent.

Constant switching creates a distractible state of never being fully present. It trains the brain to have a short attention span and shrinks working memory capacity. This is especially pernicious in young people, who are most likely to multitask and whose brains are the most susceptible to programming of bad habits.

Multitasking not only becomes a habit, it is addictive. I see many youngsters who seem to have withdrawal symptoms if they can't check their phone messages every few minutes. Mail messages send an associated signal that someone thinks you are important enough to contact. This provides powerfully reward personal affirmation. Worse yet, like slot-machine payoffs, the reinforcement occurs randomly, which is the most effective way to condition behavior. It turns us into trained seals.

Why does anybody engage in behaviors that can turn them into a trained seal? One study indicates that susceptibility to task switching depends on the existing mental state. The researchers monitored 32 information workers, of near-equal gender, in the work environment for five days. Workers were more likely to switch off-task to Facebook or face-to-face conversations when they were doing rote tasks, which were presumably boring. When they were focused, they were more likely to switch to e-mail. Time wasting in Facebook and e-mail increased in proportion to the amount of task switching. Overall, the workers witched to Facebook an average of 21 times per day and to e-mail 74 times. Though the total time spent off-task was small (about 10 minutes on Facebook and 35 min on e-mail, the excessive task switching must surely have degraded the productivity of the primary work tasks. Why does anybody need to check Facebook 21 times a day or e-mail 74 times a day? This is compulsive behavior that has affected the entire workforce like an infectious disease.

How does one break the multitasking habit? The most obvious way is to reduce the opportunity. Turn off the cell phone. You do not have to be accessible to everyone at every instant. Don't launch the mail app, and when it is on, turn off the feature that notifies you about the arrival of each new message. If you don't need to use a computer or the Internet for the task you are working on, don't turn on your electronic devices. If a computer is needed, don't launch the browser until you actually need it.

Be more aware of your current mental state, because it affects your distractibility. If doing boring work, find ways to make it less boring and thus less tempting to switch tasks. If you are doing work that is engaging, make it a goal to stay focused for longer and longer times on such work. Set goals for increasing the time spent on task. You should at least be able to sustain focus for 30 minutes. Just as multitasking can condition bad habits, mental discipline can condition good attentiveness and thinking habits.

Sources:

Levitin, Daniel J. 2015. Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Guardian. Jan. 18.

Mark, G. et al. 2015. Focused, aroused, but so distractible: A temporal perspective on multitasking and communications.  ACM Digital Library. https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CSCW%202015%20Fo...

Mark, Gloria. 2015. Multitasking in the Digital Age. doi:10.2200/S00635ED1V01Y201503HCI029. Morgan and Claypool.