Why You're Getting Nothing Done When You Multitask

Communications technologies such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops allow us to get a lot more things done a lot faster.

Using mobile devices, we can sit in a meeting, text dinner plans to our spouse, browse email and even pay a bill – all at the same time.

Pretty productive, huh?

Not necessarily, says neurologist Tanvir Syed, MD.

“There are some instances when multitasking can be beneficial, but most of the implications of multitasking are negative,” Dr. Syed says.

It may seem like we’re being more productive by getting several things done at the same time, but it’s more likely that multitasking actually detracts from our efficacy in each individual task, he says.

"For example, if I'm texting during a meeting, I'm probably not paying complete attention to what’s being said in the meeting," he says. "And, I’m probably rushing my text, and the message may come across as uncaring or crude. So neither task will get my full attention.”

Although it may seem that a person can do several things at once, in reality, the brain is able to perform one single task at a time.

“When we multitask, we are actually toggling back and forth between tasks,” Dr. Syed says.

But the result of chronic multitasking may be even more dangerous than incomplete or compromised tasks. It can also impart damage – physically, emotionally and socially.

The stress generated by trying to do too many things at once may actually damage a part of our brains called the anterior cingulate cortex,  Dr. Syed says. This part of the brain is thought to be involved in such diverse functions as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, decision-making, impulse control, reward anticipation, ethics and empathy for others.

“Studies have revealed actual damage to that part of the brain due to stress from multitasking,” Dr. Syed says. “That may help to explain the lack of empathy demonstrated by many young people who are constantly using their cell phones today.”

Stress – from multitasking issues or from other causes – often demonstrates physical symptoms, like headaches, acid reflux or irritable bowel syndrome. If trying to do too many things at once is stressing you out, take a step back before it ruins your health, Dr. Syed says.

Unfortunately, Dr. Syed says, today’s busy culture has created an expectation that employees, students and other people should be doing multiple tasks in short time periods.

“Technology has created the ability to multitask, and if you want to keep up with your competitors, it’s almost something that you can’t get away from,” he says.

Multitasking Tips

However, there are some ways you can mitigate the effects of and the need to multitask, which can help with unhealthy stress reduction, Dr. Syed says. They include:

  • Organize a schedule for yourself. Have a starting point and a stopping point for all of your tasks. For example, if you know you have a meeting at a certain time, schedule time to check your email and send your texts before and after the meeting, he says. “When you go to the meeting, leave your phone at your desk," Dr. Syed says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, the text or call you’re going to receive during the meeting is not an emergency.”
  • Exercise. Exercising has numerous benefits, Dr. Syed says. First, having 30 minutes of "me time" without your phone will help to take away a lot of the stress that comes from multitasking. Second, exercise stimulates your brain with powerful neurotransmitters that will help you to perform tasks better. "The 30 minutes per day that you invest in exercise doesn’t cost you time; it actually gains you time because you’re able to function more efficiently,” he says.
  • Put it away. Along with encouraging users to multitask, mobile devices also compromise face-to-face social interaction, Dr. Syed says.
    “At home, we use mobile phones for communication and not entertainment,” he says. “We have family time with no phones. Being addicted to these mobile devices is eroding our social skills, empathy for others, and our sense of family values.”

Tanvir Syed, MD is a neurologist at UHMP Neurology at University Hospitals St. John Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Syed or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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