Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

With the internet in our pockets these days, multitasking seems to be at an all-time high. I’m a big multitasker myself, especially when I’m at home. After work, I move a million miles a minute: washing dishes, packing breakfast and lunch for the next day, prepping dinner, and picking up around the house – all while checking email each time my phone beeps. I race through these tasks, often dropping food on the floor, and I wonder if doing so many things at once is helping me be any more efficient?

multitasking cartoonAccording to countless research studies, it’s true that multitasking decreases your quality of work and slows you down. For example, writing an email and talking on the phone both use the same part of the brain. So, these competing tasks decrease the brain’s efficiency; you would be better off hanging up the phone and then taking the extra time to write the email. But what’s even worse is that multitasking could have adverse physical effects as well. A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2009) found that multitasking can trigger the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to a negative cycle: you feel stressed about the amount of work you have, so you multitask, thinking this will help you work faster and fit more into the day. Instead, you are slower, produce lower quality work, and feel even more stressed than before the multitasking.

brain on multitaskingSo what’s the best way to work? Set aside uninterrupted blocks of 20 minutes at a time to work on a single task, and then take a 5 minute break in-between. After 3 blocks, take a more substantial break, for 15 to 20 minutes, and do something completely unrelated to your work (take a walk, read fiction, talk to a friend, have a snack). For students, an uninterrupted block means no TV on in the background, phone and iPad notifications silenced and out of sight, and no energetic siblings bounding around the room.

The good news? Researchers don’t consider listening to music while working to be multitasking because our brains have a special area that’s dedicated only to music. Blasting instrumental music may even increase productivity because you won’t be distracted by noise around you!


One thought on “Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

  1. thinktutoring101

    Reblogged this on Tutoring 101 and commented:
    Thank you to St. John’s for this great article on the potential negatives of multitasking. Multitasking is a great villain in many of our working, studying, and learning lives because it drapes itself in a cloak of usefulness, of productivity, when in fact it creates just the opposite: lowered efficiency, less productivity, poorer quality of work, and so on.

    NPR has also written about this issue recently in their article, “We’re Not Taking Enough Lunch Breaks. Why That’s Bad For Business.” According to “We’re Not Taking…,” the pressure to not only multitask but to constantly be on-hand and on-the-clock is leading us as employees (and likely as students as well) to work longer yet less effective and less creative hours.

    “Fewer American workers are taking time for lunch. Research shows that only 1 in 5 five people steps away for a midday meal. Most workers are simply eating at their desks.

    But studies have also found that the longer you stay at work, the more important it is to get outside of the office, even if it’s just for a few minutes, because creativity can take a hit when you don’t change environments.”

    This might not seem to affect students quite as much given that elementary, middle, and high school students all have mandatory lunch breaks, but if you think your example of constantly being on the clock, of using lunchtime, dinnertime, breakfast time (all the time) as work time isn’t being seen and absorbed by your children, then you’re sorely mistaken.

    As parents and teachers, we are the ones who lay the groundwork for our children; we’re the ones creating the rules and norms to be inherited by our young thinkers and students. So, if not for the sake of your own health and creativity, take a break for the sake of your kids’–take a break for the sake of their future, for your own happiness as well as theirs.



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