Friday, February 8, 2013

(Brain) Food For Thought

"It's hard not to multitask, given all the things we have to do and all the streams of information coming at us non-stop."--Douglas Merrill

photo courtesy microsoft office clipart
Multitasking. A word that's been around for some time, and one that expresses our sometimes-frenzied culture. There's never enough time, especially in this intense information age, so gotta' do several things at once or we won't get everything done, right?

Maybe wrong.

Multitasking (n.): "the performance of multiple tasks at one time." (Merriam Webster).

I hadn't given much thought to this concept until a recent health newsletter came in the mail. The headline announced, Stop Multitasking to Improve Your Memory (Life Advice, Winter 2013).

In it, results of studies conducted by Dr.Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program, were summed up. "A good memory requires focusing attention and getting information into memory stores so it can be retrieved later. When multitasking--switching from phone to computer to TV--information doesn't stay in the brain long enough to be retained." He also says that the belief that multitasking helps get more done is a fallacy. "Multitasking makes people sloppy and error-prone. Do one thing at a time and your memory will improve."

Turns out this has been a subject that's been studied and bandied about for some time. Titles of a variety of blog posts--and sound bites extracted from them--tell quite a story:

The Myth of Multitasking, Tyler Falk. "A new study from the University of Utah calls out all the self-proclaimed multitaskers out there. The take away? You're not as good at multitasking as you think you are."

Why Multitasking Doesn't Work, Douglas Merrill. "I know, you think you're good at multitasking. And to some degree, you are. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. Folding laundry while talking on the phone? Not a problem...This form of multitasking works because these are rote tasks that don't require much brainpower. Unfortunately, our brains just aren't equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower...When you're trying to accomplish two dissimilar tasks, each one requiring some level of consideration and attention, multitasking falls apart. Your brain just can't take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of information and encode them fully into short-term memory. When information doesn't make it into short-term memory, it can't be transferred into long-term memory for later recall...Instead of actually helping you, multitasking works against you. It's making you less efficient, not more."

Is Multitasking Bad for Us?, Brandon Keim. "It is sometimes argued that multitasking is nothing new. For more than half a century, people grew up talking on the phone while watching TV, doing homework while listening to music, and so on. The multiple, ubiquitous information streams of early-21st-century life, however, are different in kind rather than degree. If we used to ride a cognitive horse-and-buggy, now we're in a race car." Also, from a study Keim quotes, "High multitaskers were bad at filtering irrelevant information from relevant, something that, one might suppose, a multitasker should be especially good at. High multitaskers also had diminished powers of mental organization and extra difficulty switching between tasks."

The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking, Kendra Cherry. "Recent research...has demonstrated that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability." Cherry goes on to give a three-part definition on what multitasking can mean: 1. performing two or more tasks simultaneously, 2. switching back and forth from one thing to another, 3. performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

Multitasking is Making You Stupid, Jessica Stillman. "Doing many things at once isn't just distracting--it actually takes points off your IQ, scientists say...'A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 points on an IQ test...This effect is similar to missing a night's sleep.'"

Ouch. Where do those of us who multitask on a regular basis go with information like this? Can we slow down and give full attention to the task at hand? Can we prioritize? Can we be more productive, more nurturing, more engaged in the moment? Is there a counter to the debate that says multitasking isn't so bad? Should the word "balance" be introduced to the discussion?

What about you? Do you multitask regularly? What is your definition of multitasking? Has your productivity benefited or suffered? How well is your brainpower functioning?

Just some (brain) food for thought...


  1. I've always felt I was bad at multi-tasking. I would much rather focus on one big project, and do it exclusively for however long it takes, and then move on to the next big thing. I've felt it makes me an "all or nothing" type, but I feel more productive that way. I can see big projects being completed after a (period of time), rather than parceling out six different projects over the course of months. It takes a while to get a handle on a big project, and piddly little time slots of half a day or less just don't work for me, even if they do come around once a week or so. Right now, I'm working on only two big projects: getting my rooms painted (and cleaning out all cupboards/closets)in the newly-painted rooms, and, during my "I'm so tired I can't move" moments, I'm working on my blog posts for the A-Z challenge, and that is ALL I'm trying to do. My brain can't hold the thought of writing or an agent search in addition, or even reading the Golden Heart contest entries. They've been back-burnered until next week.

  2. I have a bad habit of multi-tasking. I have heard its not good. Nowadays I try to focus on one task at a time.

  3. Lately, work has required me to multi-task to the extent that I feel like a clone of myself. Or something. It doesn't always work as well as I'd like. I make more mistakes (most of them little ones, thank goodness). But I do think I've learned to switch focus better than I used to. I frequently check email while I'm writing, for example, and am able to go back and forth fairly well without losing much time. Maybe that's the "up" side of it.

  4. This is the perfect post for me! With the new little one, I find that my multi-tasking has been forcibly taken away from me. There are certain things that just aren't getting done, and I need to tell myself that it's okay to not be such a multi-tasker. In fact, some days it's best for my children if I just focus on one thing: them :)

  5. I multitask regularly, but I've learned that it's not always a good thing. Laundry and talking on the phone - yes. Writing and talking on the phone, not so much. :) Thanks for the info, Kendra. Good things to think about!

  6. I had read similar information some time ago, and was convinced that multitasking is hindering the success of college students! Imagine--researching online for a paper, while instant messaging, checking facebook, googling, and listening to streaming music at the same time. Hmmmm...I know we all multitask, but we shouldn't kid ourselves by thinking we're able to do more when we're really doing less.