Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
You know how some blog post titles overreach, over-promise, and smack of snake oil salesmanship? That would not be this post’s title. The real con is the lie that we are more efficient when we multitask or that we are productive when we spend hours in a day emailing, texting, tweeting, and other activities that require a series of quick, off-the-top-of-our-heads actions.
Here are a few facts about how the brain functions when we press ourselves to work faster, respond quicker, and stay “engaged” online or via email rather than do “deep” work.
Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and an expert on divided attention, says that our brains are “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost…”
Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience, describes our plight this way in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:
We’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute.
According to Levitin, multitasking increases the production of a stress hormone and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. These hormones “overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.”
Researcher Glenn Wilson found the cognitive losses from lack of concentrating on one task are greater than the cognitive losses from smoking marijuana or skipping a night’s sleep.
A Stanford neuroscientist discovered that learning new information while multitasking (such as emailing and watching TV) results in that information being placed in the wrong part of your brain. It lands in a part that is for procedures and skills. If properly placed in the hippocampus, where facts and ideas are stored, the information is filed in various ways and is therefore more easily retrieved.
“[The] 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…[and that] can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour.”
Just what we need: to work hard but feel tired…and make poor decisions.
Our email inboxes create severe challenges for us in how we function in our workday. In almost every industry, workers are so flooded by emails that responding to them can take up the entire day. Note I used the word “respond.” Emails result in our responding to other people’s work much more than moving through our to-do list.
Levitin quotes an individual who sees his emails this way:
A large proportion of emails I receive are from people I barely know asking me to do something for them that is outside what would normally be considered the scope of my work or my relationship with them. Email somehow apparently makes it OK to ask for things they would never ask by phone, in person, or in snail mail.
The barrage of emails, which most users have no way to sort before opening each one, is exhausting in its variety but also in the uncertainty of what each will contain. As Levitin puts it:
This uncertainty wreaks havoc with our rapid perceptual categorisation system, causes stress, and leads to decision overload. Every email requires a decision! Do I respond to it? If so, now or later? How important is it? What will be the social, economic, or job-related consequences if I don’t answer, or if I don’t answer right now?
And then there’s the reality that we just can’t leave our emails alone. We’re constantly checking for new ones. And then we feel the need to answer them. When you are trying to concentrate but an unread email is sitting in your inbox, your effective IQ can be reduced by 10 points.
Here’s the addictive process our brains go through when we see an unread email (or a text, which demands even more immediacy):
- You realize you’ve received an email.
- This activates the brain’s novelty centers. (Something new! What’s in it? I have to know!)
- You read the email and respond and feel rewarded for having completed a task (even though that task was unknown to you a few minutes earlier).
- Each time you feel that sense of completion, you experience a shot of dopamine as your addicted limbic system cries out, “Do it again!”
Constantly shifting from one quick task to another can result in permanent changes to the brain.
A study from the University of Sussex (U.K.) ran MRI scans on the brains of individuals who spent time on multiple devices at once (texting while watching TV, for example). The MRI scans showed that subjects who multitasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex. That’s the area responsible for empathy and emotional control.
Now, the author of the article I read, Larry Kim, does point out that researchers don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect. Do individuals who have this brain density experience a propensity to multitask? Or does multitasking cause the brain density? It’s too soon to know.
These findings of the affect of flitting quickly from task to task, whether it be emails, texts, TV, or talking on the phone, are sobering. And give me renewed vigor in my attempt to purposely set aside serious clumps of my day for concentrated jobs like reading a manuscript, working on a contract, or preparing a proposal for submission. I owe it to my brain!
How do you organize your day to keep your mind on the deeper work you need to do?
Is your email causing mayhem in your brain? Click to tweet.
The high cost of multitasking. Click to tweet.