Many people multitask in order to be more productive. A number of researches have shown that we should stop multitasking because it actually leaves us more unproductive and does more harm than good. In this episode, Kat Nieh shares three long-term damages of multitasking that you may not know about, revealing what it does to our brain, our emotional intelligence, and even our social competence. She also gives some tips on what you can do instead if you can’t help but multitask.
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[EPISODE 16] – Three Unexpected Long Term Damages Of Multitasking
I’m sharing with you three unexpected long-term damages of the multitasking. This is a continuation of my last episode that talked about the Five Common Side Effects Of Multitasking. If you haven’t read that episode yet, check it out. In the episode, I mentioned the reason why I wanted to cover this topic in the first place. It was because one of my mentors, Dr. Matt James, told me about an article in Forbes that said “multitasking kills your brain cells.” That seemed crazy to me, so I had to dig up this article and once I did, I absolutely went into this crazy rabbit hole all about multitasking. I had to share what I learned with you, but I’m going to make you wait a bit longer as I have two pretty important points to cover first.
Multitasking Lowers Your IQ
As you multitask, you were reducing your intelligence because your ability to comprehend what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing is being compromised. According to Professor Gloria Mark, who studied digital interaction at the University of California, Irvine, “It takes on average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for someone to return to an original task after an interruption.” In that same research, they found that people switch activities on an average of three minutes and five seconds and about half of those interruptions are self-inflicted by choice. That means you are purposely picking your phone or you are finding something to distract yourself with versus an actual external source creating your distraction, such as someone coming over to talk to you.
Professor Gloria Mark also says, “People have to shift their cognitive resources, or attentional resources, to a completely different topic… You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were… I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10.5 minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply… There’s no way people can achieve flow.” Let me rephrase that for you to emphasize what she said. She is saying that as they’re switching from task to task, you are switching the context if we are thinking.
For example, if you’re working on your project logically thinking through a problem and the next you’re typing up an email responding to your coworkers’ request, you’re doing things differently— mentally and physically—that requires you to use your brain in a different way or thinking contextually on different subjects. If you on average are doing this every ten and a half minutes, you aren’t giving your brain enough time to think deeply either context. Your brain needs time to process things effectively. You can’t properly achieve your flow or get into the zone if you’re constantly switching between tasks.
Let’s compile the stats she provided: On average, people are switching activities every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. They are also switching contexts every 10.5 minutes. It also requires someone to take about 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track. In all that time, switching back and forth contexts and taking time for you to get back on track, the problem here isn’t the time wasted on distractions as you’re multitasking, but it is also sacrificing some of your best thinking.Your brain needs time to process things effectively. You can't properly get into the zone if you're constantly switching between tasks. Click To Tweet
How is this lowering your IQ? It’s actually hindering your ability to learn and interpret the information effectively as your brain requires. You absolutely need quality focus and quality attention for learning. That’s why when you’re distracted, you keep rereading the same sentences over and over again. On the other hand, when you have that amazing laser focus, you are able to quickly pick up whatever you’re learning at the moment.
Check this out: A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experience IQ scores declines. They said that those declines are similar to what they expect if someone had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. It also stated that some of the men had an IQ drop of 15 points while they’re are multitasking. That lowered IQ score is equivalent to an average IQ of an eight-year-old child. Yes, adult men thinking at the wavelength of an eight-year-old child. (Ok, I couldn’t find this exact study, but the statistic has been referenced in so many other articles and the references only mentioned men. I can’t say with certainty that this is a gender-specific results. If anyone finds this article, please share it with me. I would love to read it.)
The next time you’re in a meeting, listening to a presentation while reading an article about something that interests you, know that your ability to pay attention to both and retain the information you need to learn is severely hindered. That’s why you can’t recall various details of what is said in the meeting, nor the details of the article you read. You might get the bigger picture of both, but is that helping you?
Multitasking Lowers Your EQ
First, let’s discuss why emotional intelligence is important. According to the extensive research conducted by Travis Bradberry, who is a bestselling author and emotional intelligence expert, he says, “Emotional intelligence is a common trait within 90% of top performers in any field. Emotional intelligence is an intangible force that influences our ability to navigate our behaviors and social complexities through communication and decision-making.”
EQ affects communication and decision-making abilities. What is one of the side effects of multitasking that I mentioned in my last episode? It was number four, multitasking hurts your decision-making skills. He continues to say, “Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skill areas, with two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.” I want to zoom in on the social competence part as he defines “social competence concerns relationship management and social awareness for human communication and interactions with others.”
When you’re multitasking, you get the bigger picture, but you’re not noticing the details. Your brain scans what it’s looking for like a spotlight. Everything else fades away or isn’t even registering in your brain as new learnings or knowledge? And EQ requires you to notice the details. And by noticing the details of how someone is communicating to you: You notice the words they’re using. You’re noticing their tone of voice, which reflects their internal thoughts and feelings. You’re noticing their body language. With the awareness of all of that, you can tune in your response to what they need to hear or how you can change the way you communicate with them better. All that builds a good connection in relationships, and it strengthens your EQ.Multitasking in meetings and other social settings creates low self-awareness and social awareness, which are critical to success at work. Click To Tweet
But when you’re multitasking, you can’t pick up all those details, which in turn lowers your EQ. Multitasking in meetings and other social settings creates low self-awareness (aka personal competence) and social awareness (aka social competence), which are the two emotional skills that are critical to success at work. Every time you’re multitasking, you aren’t just harming your work performance at the moment. You’re affecting important EQ skillsets, which are critical to your future success at work as well. Let’s continue onto the point that we’ve all been waiting for.
Multitasking Leads To Permanent Brain Damage
Let’s dive into the Forbes article that was written by Travis Bradberry on October 2014 titled, “Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, New Studies Suggest” This single article has been rewritten and referenced by many others that I found.
It references a study done by Kep Kee Loh published in September 2014 called Higher Media Multitasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. What is Anterior Cingulate Cortex? Let’s shorten that to ACC. It plays a critical role in several complex cognitive functions such as attention allocation, reward anticipation, empathy, impulse control, emotions, and decision making. Kep Kee Loh says in his study that people who are considered heavy multitaskers have lower gray matter density in the ACC. That’s responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.
He says “heavy multitaskers (relative to lighter multitaskers) were slower in detecting changes in visual patterns, more susceptible to false recollections of the distractors during a memory task, and were slower in task switching. Heavy multitaskers were less able to volitionally restrain their attention only to task relevant information.” Overall, he says that they have poor cognitive control abilities. They are slower in detecting changes in patterns because they don’t have the proper attention to detail to notice the changes. They’re susceptible to remember the wrong information when recalling something and they were slower in the task-switching itself. The heavy multitaskers weren’t able to keep their attention focused enough on the information they need for the task at hand.
He says, “Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC.” Let me paraphrase that for you. He’s saying that in the studies, he and his associate created this link and connection between multitasking and structural changes in the ACC. They couldn’t definitively claim that this is a cause until more research could be done, but regardless, this still leads to some concern.
Our brains are constantly being altered as a reaction to our environment. But lower gray matter sounds pretty serious to me as we need our gray matter to process information. And that list I mentioned earlier of what the ACC controls? Those are pretty important functions, right? What I didn’t mention earlier was that also controls our body’s autonomic functions as well, such as regulating our blood pressure and heart rate. So yah, that part of the brain seems pretty critical to me.It’s important to give yourself the mental breaks and the space to process information. Click To Tweet
Also, according to the neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, multitasking is taxing on the brain and drains precious energy. He says, “Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.” Depleting nutrients isn’t as severe as brain damage, but isn’t it steps away from it when your brain is lacking the nutrients it needs to function properly?
Think of how often we all do this on a daily basis and what that compounding effect could be in the long run. We’ve been trained to multitask, and we’ve been training ourselves to try and to get better at it. But now diving into this rabbit hole, is this what we want to be doing? Is this the habit you want to be indulging in? Is it helping you in the long run? These two episodes I’ve covered about how multitasking is negatively affecting your mental performance, the quality of your work, your EQ, your IQ, and even actual structural changes in your brain. The study says it links the connection and cannot prove it without further in-depth research. but allowing yourself to multitask causes a lack of concentration, poor thought processes, and crappy attention to details. Do you want all that?
Here’s my conclusion, my takeaways, and what I want to share with you from the previous episode’s “Five Side Effects” and this episode’s “Three Unexpected Long Term Damages of Multitasking”:
- I get it. Sometimes we feel the need to multitask. It will happen, but you could choose to consciously be aware of what tasks you’re doing. At the same time, choose a consciously pair, something less cognitively taxing suggests listening to music with one that requires more cognitive demand, like working on a thought-provoking project and know that in this case, less is always more with multitasking. It’s better to do less.
- As you’re doing it, notice if you’re really retaining the information. Notice your focus and concentration levels. Notice your comprehension. Notice where your attention is when you’re doing these different tasks simultaneously or perceptively.
- Please give yourself the mental breaks and the space to process the information as well. You need time to integrate the things you’ve been learning and you need that time to get into the zone to creatively problem solve whatever you’re working on.
- The common side effects are things we’re aware of and the long-term damages are recent developments in research and studies of connections made, but not fully proven. If they are true, isn’t all that scary thought?
- In this world, we’re constantly taking on more and you will hit your state of exhaustion, your breaking point, and your burnout zone. This is my cautionary tale for you to increase your awareness and your mental state and choose to take the preventive measures to protect yourself. Only you know how much you can handle or do you really? Choose to set clear boundaries of what you could handle. Know that it is okay to give yourself permission to put other things aside for later to focus on, so you could focus on what you need to do right now at this particular moment.
You got this. I hope these episodes have helped you look at your multitasking behavior in another way, and that you choose to do something about it for your own mental and physical brain wellbeing.
Until next time…
- Dear Workaholics Episode 15: Five Common Side Effects of Multitasking – previous episode
- PLOS One – Higher Media Multitasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex
- Forbes – Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, New Studies Suggest
- Eurekalert – Brain scans reveal ‘gray matter’ differences in media multitaskers
- I Done This Blog – How Distractions At Work Take Up More Time Than You Think
- Wikipedia – Anterior cingulate cortex
- Travis Bradberry – “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”