Think You’re Great at Multitasking? Think Again!

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You’re not as efficient at multitasking as you’d like to believe you are. 

Neuroscience research has finally revealed what many people thought for many years now – multitasking is a myth. Although you may feel that you are still getting work done by switching between tasks, you are actually slowing down your own productivity, and potentially creating more mistakes than you would have if you just focused on one task at a time. To put it simply, your brain is unable to focus, in-depth, on multiple tasks at a time. So while you think you’re focusing on more than one thing at a time, you’re really not. Sorry to break it to you.

Dr JoAnn Deak, an educator, psychologist, and author of the book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, argues that the brain is only to really focus on one task at a time. When you switch between tasks, your brain is essentially shutting down that task, and starting a new one, and when you switch back, you’re forcing your brain to start that task again.

“When you try to multitask, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes,” Dr Deak said in a conference late last year.

In addition, Dr Deak said that children and adolescents, with their rapidly developing brains, are the most vulnerable to jumping around in between tasks ineffectively.

In fact, the brain might not actually have enough connections to do two complex tasks at the same time. In order to prove this, there’s a relatively simple exercise that you can see for yourself how difficult multitasking really is. The test was made popular by the Potential Project, a Denmark based group, and the instructions are as follows:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
  • On the first line, write:
    • I am a great multitasker
  • On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
    • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Typically, it takes around 20 seconds to perform this task, depending on how fast of a writer you are.

Now, try to complete a version of the test that involves you multitasking. Draw two more horizontal lines, except this time, write a letter on one line, and then write the number on the line below. Continue alternating between letters on the upper line, and numbers on the lower line.

Example:

I am….

1 2 3…

We can almost guarantee that the time it took you to complete the second exercise is double, possibly more, than it was when you completed the first exercise. You might have also made a few errors along the way, because your brain is trying to focus and remember what letter/number is supposed to come next!

Even something as simple as listening to music, and studying can be exhausting for your brain. If you’re reading a book with music playing, and you keep switching between actually listening to the music and trying to read, your brain can delay, even just slightly, while you try to switch between tasks.

And that’s just what you’re doing. You aren’t actually multitasking, you’re actually doing something called “task switching”.

Finally, Dr Deak believes that the more developing brains switch between tasks, the more it stimulates parts of the brain associated with pleasure.

“We’re creating a generation of minds who have extreme difficulty dealing with long-term input,” Dr Deak said. “Anything that isn’t multitasking is perceived as boring.”

To combat this, JoAnn Deak says that if teachers and parents shouldn’t allow their children to mix leisurely activities with their school work, because it can negatively impact the development of their brain. In other words, don’t let your child check their phones, or listen to music while they are studying. In fact, her research shows that using a computer while learning in a classroom was one of the worst possible forms of multitasking.

Do you think you’re a great multitasker? Do you agree with Dr Deak’s research?

Let us know!

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