We’ve all experienced this hamster wheel—we need to be more efficient, so we multi-task. But in the end, there is little to no gain in time or productivity, and we’re exhausted at the end of it. Why is multi-tasking so difficult? Is it even worth it to try?
But modern life constantly challenges us to multitask, particularly in the presence of mobile devices, laptops, and other portable screens tempting us with notifications and constantly reloading friends’ feeds. In fact, in a review of recent studies on everyday multitasking, cognitive psychologist Mark L. Carrier and his colleagues found that some of us who use modern technology have developed a kind of AD/HD-like “iDisorder.”
Not only are we less focused when we attempt to multitask, it costs us in both time and money. According to analyst and author Jonathan B. Spira, extreme multitasking and information overload costs the US economy $650 billion annually in lost productivity.
Perhaps the pervasiveness of multitasking lies in the idea that when we do it, we might feel like we’re accomplishing more. However, our brains are much better at focusing on one cognitive task at a time, often called “monotasking” or “single-tasking.” And the fact is that when we are multitasking we are actually accomplishing less.
Understanding Multitasking and Task-Switching
While often the terms “multitasking” and “task-switching” are used interchangeably, they are slightly different.
Multitasking is like trying to watch three movies all playing simultaneously, each on their own screen. Sure, you can get an idea of what’s happening in each, but it’s quite difficult to follow the plots, characters, and themes of each with your full attention.
Task-switching refers to a situation where you’re watching the three movies by paying attention to one at a time, and shuttling between them individually. This is a poor way to take in information because each switch between tasks exacts a cost on your brain’s processes. Your brain has to recall the plot of the each movie every time you return to it. This loss is non-trivial, and greatly increases if the tasks are not similar—for example switching between watching a movie and doing your homework.
Intuitively, when it comes to television shows and movies, we know it’s better if we can watch one at a time on one screen at a time without interruptions. In fact, researchers at Aalto University in Finland studied these very scenarios and came to the same conclusion.
What Happens in the Brain When We Multitask
When we talk about multitasking or task-switching, we’re really talking about how we divide our attention.
When we “task-switch,” blood flow increases in an area of the frontal cortex called the Brodman area 10. While this region of the brain is not well understood, neuroscientists have found it to be involved in remembering that a task is not yet completed at the time when we start a new one, keeping the first task in a kind of “pending” state.
When we focus on one task at a time, the Brodman area 10 is far less likely to engage, keeping blood flowing to other parts of the brain.
Researchers at the University of Sussex found that people who engage less frequently with several media devices at the same time have higher grey-matter density than those who use one device less often, particularly in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.
While this discovery might be a chicken and egg correlation, the finding is still notable. The brain’s grey matter includes regions of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, decision-making, and self-control, and greater density is associated with higher functioning of those areas.
The Benefits of Monotasking
We’ve heard about why we shouldn’t multitask, but what can happen when we monotask?
Eyal Ophir and colleagues at Stanford University found that people who engage less in heavy media multitasking—such as monitoring multiple apps or social media streams at the same time—are less likely to be distracted and are better able to filter out external stimuli and information unrelated to their current task.
And, we are less likely to be stressed, reducing levels of adrenaline and cortisol, leaving us less vulnerable to both mental and physical ailments. In fact, while some workers are able to make up lost time when interrupted—either by external factors or personal choice—they experience less stress, lower frustration, and exert less effort when they can work on one task at a time.
Several studies have shown that in academic settings, particularly in lectures, students who avoid distractions on their laptops or phones earn higher grades, retain more of the lesson, and report that they are more satisfied with their education.
In addition, psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that people who don’t succumb to the temptation to multitask or task-switch learn new facts easier and faster than those who were distracted.
For those of us who might feel easily distracted, how can we better stick to the task at hand?
Meditation Improves Task Attention and Memory
Meditation and mindfulness practice, even for a short period of time, can help someone stay on task and be less tempted to task switch.
David M. Levy and colleagues found in a study of knowledge workers that mindfulness meditation—particularly focused-attention meditation—significantly improved their subjects’ ability to stay on task. These workers also made fewer mistakes and reported less negative emotion after completing a task than non-meditators.
Focused attention meditation asks the practitioner to focus on one phenomenon or object, such as breathing, to avoid letting the mind wander or be distracted
In addition, knowledge workers with a consistent meditation practice also showed improved memory, and they were less likely to start new tasks before finishing the ones on which they were already working.
When we can stay on task, we are likely to get more done, feel better about ourselves and our work, remember more, and feel less mentally depleted at the end of the day. Those benefits far outweigh the perception that we’re doing more when we juggle multiple activities at once.
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