Written by Kathy Graham OCTOBER 21, 2015
It’s never been easier to engage simultaneously in multiple tasks. Thanks to technology, we can now talk on our phone, read emails, and check to see if anyone ‘likes’ our most recent Facebook post, all while we eat our lunch. Yet it’s a mistake to think our ability in this regard is saving us time and increasing our productivity. On the contrary, so-called multitasking – and you’ll learn why the term is a misnomer in a sec – is actually quite bad for us.
Dr Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, who’s being interviewed here following the publication of his most recent book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. He describes multitasking as a “pernicious illusion” and says what we’re really doing when we’re tweeting, emailing, cooking and watching True Detective all at once “is rapidly shifting attention from one thing to the next.” (Sounds like the definition of distraction, doesn’t it?)
The problem is this “comes at a neurological cost” in that every time we shift our attention to something else, we burn up our limited supply of glucose. That’s why, says Levitin, “If you feel depleted and tired, it’s because you have literally depleted this glucose source.” Worse still, low glucose triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which “shuts down higher cognitive activity.” Hence you may also suffer from cloudy thinking.
In addition, multitasking makes it’s much harder to learn new information. Levitin says, “When people are distracted, the pathways of the brain that allow you to take information that is coming in and put it in the parts of the brain that will help you actually manipulate it or analyse it or store it in memory are disrupted.”
What’s interesting is even if you resolve not to read your emails until after you’ve finished the report you’re writing, Levitin reports on some research that shows “the distraction of having an email in your box that you haven’t read effectively lowers your functioning IQ because your mind is now divided.” In other words, all the hypothesising we do about who’s maybe emailed us and why occupies “the place of thought that you would rather be directing on what you have at hand.”
All of which explains why multitaskers accomplish so much less than unitaskers according to a number of workplace studies.
In case you’re wondering just how much of a concern this is, here’s something to ponder. Levitin says, “We take in five times as much information every day as we did just 25 years ago, the equivalent of reading 175 newspapers from cover to cover.” Yet our brains have barely changed in the last 40,000 years, plus we’ve been gadget free for most of our evolutionary history. So if as Levitin says, “You can’t expect evolution to catch up in a matter of just a few hundred years” and we’re currently exposed to more information than our brains can handle, is there anything we can do to mitigate the harmful effects?
Levitin spends times in Silicon Valley and there he’s observed some of the most productive people enforcing “no technology times, an hour or two with the cell phone and the email and the computer and Internet off, where they can just focus on their work.”