What is Multitasking? Is it a Special Skill?
Multitasking is dealing with more than one task at the same time or processing multiple tasks at one time. Multitasking takes place when someone tries to perform more than one task simultaneously, switching from one task to another, or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession.
For example, driving a car, talking on your mobile phone and eating a sandwich at the same time is multitasking. You think that you are getting more things done in the same amount of time it takes to do a single thing. True, you may be doing all those things but studies show that the performance of people who multitask is much less than those who concentrate on one task at a time. In fact, the quality of output drops during multitasking.
MRI studies reveal that the brain cannot handle two or more complex tasks at the same time. However, only 2 percent of the population is genetically gifted and truly able to do a variety of activities at the same time without losing efficiency or quality of work. However, doing activities like simple cooking as in basic tea and toast and simultaneously talking on the mobile, which do not activate complex areas in the brain is easily accomplished by most people.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in task processing, complex planning, memory and higher decision making functions such as considering and prioritizing information. Researchers at New York University have identified the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) as the region of the brain that controls our ability to multitask.
Studies show that the brain cannot effectively handle two or more complex activities at a time. Just as it is not possible to think of two things at once, the brain performs at optimal level when it is focused on a single task. When the brain tries to do two things at once, there is increased activity in different parts of the brain and constant shifting in focus, which affects the functioning and productivity of the brain.
However if the two tasks relate to our everyday behavior such as watching TV and talking on the phone at the same time then the tasks can be easily done. This is due to our practiced motor skills and the fact that these tasks do not overlap with other complex processes in the brain.
Advances in technology allow people to do more tasks at the same time. It is common to find people checking emails, using Facebook, Instagram, browsing the web and talking on the phone alongside preparing office reports. This creates a myth that it is easy to successfully multitask. Actually, most of us just shift back and forth between different tasks, a process that requires our brains to refocus time and time again which yields unsatisfactory results.
Researchers at Stanford University have identified that by "reactivating the learned memory," a person may engage in two tasks in a more efficient manner.
- Attention span is reduced. When you multitask your brain has to activate its different parts for focusing on the different tasks. This results in constant jumping back and forth of the nerve signals as you change focus on each task. This results in decrease in attention span as the brain is simultaneously receiving and processing information when you are conducting a task. Also this information is placed in an area of the brain that deals in short term memory and is mostly forgotten.
- Brain functioning slows down. Multitasking slows down the ability of the brain when it has to focus on various tasks.
- Changes in brain structure. Studies at University of Sussex have shown that constant multitasking causes changes in your brain density.
- Decrease in productivity. As multitasking causes a decrease in focus, productivity is also lowered. Multitasking is known to cause a decrease of 40 percent in productivity levels.
- Lowered work quality and efficiency. Multitasking makes it difficult to organize our thoughts and filter out irrelevant information, thus reducing the efficiency and quality of our work.
- Decrease in IQ by up to 10 points. Participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks showed a decline of 15 points in IQ scores.
- Increase in stress levels. Doing many activities at the same time overwhelms you, leaving you frustrated and mentally exhausted. Multitasking has been found to increase production of cortisol, the stress hormone.
MRI scans of people who are high multitaskers show less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy, cognition and emotional quotient [EQ]. New research suggests the possibility that cognitive damage associated with multitasking could be permanent.
While more research is needed to determine the extent of physical damage to the brain by multitasking, it is clear that multitasking has definite negative effects. Studies show that people who multitask regularly have a lower emotional quotient, which might affect their ability to understand and work in cooperation with other people.
Neuroscientists explain that the way we are interacting with technology might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.
- Focus on one activity at a time. Set for yourself a certain amount of time to perform each task and to take a break after each task is completed. This allows your brain to regain its focus to conduct the next activity. If you feel a strong urge to move to another activity while still working on one, redirect your attention back to the task at hand. Make sure you finish one task before starting the next one.
- Schedule a specific time to the task. If your job doesn’t require it, don’t check your emails throughout the day. Schedule certain times such as when you begin your work and when you finish work for the day. Always try to do your most challenging work during your most productive hours so that the less challenging tasks can be done at other times.
- Mute the tech. Eliminate distractions such as pop up of text messages, emails, ringing alerts and notifications that distract you from your work. You can put your hi tech gadgets on mute to help you concentrate only on the task at hand.
- Be well organized. Keep your things in the assigned place so you do not have to waste time searching for them. Also, it is easy to stay focused when things are tidy and well organized.
- Learn to say “NO”. Sometimes when you have a lot of tasks at hand and your colleague wants you to take on a new project, it is best to say NO as you are already trying to finish more tasks that you can handle.
- Focus more on the important things first. If you are studying for a test watching television or listening to music at the same time, it is best to focus only on studies by switching off the television and music. By putting more effort and focus in studying you will get better results.
- Don’t let small tasks interrupt the big task. Resist doing small tasks just because they are easy or can be done in a jiffy. Keeping your attention focused on the prime task will yield better results in lesser amount of time.
- Think You're Multitasking? Think Again- (http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/93/20/11280.full.pdf)
- Multitasking: Switching costs- (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794)
- General and specific brain regions involved in encoding and retrieval of events: What, where, and when- (http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx)
- Multitasking Splits the Brain- (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2010/04/multitasking-splits-brain)
Latest Publications and Research on Multitasking: Good or Bad for Your Brain?A qualitative study of nurses' perceptions of a behavioural strategies e-learning program to reduce interruptions during medication administration. - Published by PubMed