The Truth on Multitasking: What Will Doing it All at Once Do to You?

You’re writing your long list of New Year’s resolutions while checking emails for work while feeding the baby. Then the phone rings…

We live in a world of busyness with an abundance of tasks and seemingly little time to do them. New goals may mean even more things to add to the task list adding pressure to pull double or maybe triple duty during your day. We may think that, by attacking several items at once, we are efficiently completing to-do lists in a fraction of the time. However, surprising studies clearly show that dividing your attention among many tasks leaves none done as well as you would like. More importantly, it can wreak havoc on your mind.

Multitasking and Productivity

Researchers have discovered that avid multitaskers are less efficient at organizing thoughts, filtering information, and switching to new tasks than those who complete one task at a time. The actions done while multitasking also take longer to complete than if they had been done separately and mindfully. This means that, rather than improving productivity as intended, productivity is actually being reduced when taking on multiple projects. Studies have even found that a person’s IQ drops significantly during multitasking.  The effects are similar to sleep deprivation or marijuana use!

Multitasking and Mental Health

Multitasking not only affects the outcome of projects, but also the mental health of the person. Dr. Irwin of Macquarie University in Australia noted that people who worked on more than one assignment at a time were less able to find satisfaction in completing them. Stress also increased with multitasking. The prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for functions needed for multitasking, such as prioritizing, is susceptible to the effects of prolonged stress. This may relate to a study by Psychologist, Dr. Mark Becker, who found a preliminary connection between media multitasking, depression, and anxiety.

Multitasking and Relationships

And what about the effects of our multi-tasking behaviors on our relationships? When we spend time checking social media and work-related tasks on our devices during quality time with loved ones, we may actually be checking out of our relationships. For parents of young children, having eyes on devices rather than responding to their children with focused attention and eye contact can leave their kids lacking a sense of attachment, self-esteem, and social skills. In relationships in general, it is difficult to foster intimacy and connection without key components like eye contact and focused attention. Over time, relationships with too many distractions begin to suffer.

Help for Multitaskers

Not convinced? If you still think you’re a successful multi-tasker who’s an exception to the rule, try this test.

Now that you know the adverse effects of multitasking, try these pointers to improve your productivity while staying focused:

  • Instead of multitasking, try serial tasking. Complete a singular task fully and thoroughly before you begin another.
  • Notice your experience. When thoughts go astray from the project at hand, bring them back to the present moment by taking a deep breath and bringing awareness to the experience of completing what is in front of you. Pay attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts about the project. You might even try writing a grounding message on a sticky note related to the project such as, “WRITE” or “COME BACK” to remind you to stay present. Mindfulness is a skill that takes time to build. So have patience with yourself and keep practicing.
  • Take structured breaks. Allow yourself a distraction for a specified amount of time at regular intervals during your task. But make sure to stay disciplined and adhere to the time limits that you set. This will reduce the tendency for your mind to wander involuntarily.
  • Make eye contact. If quality time with a friend or loved one is the task at hand, what better way is there to focus than with your eyes? Commit to putting devices away so that you can fully experience the person you are with. Eye contact helps to show others that you value and appreciate them. Where the eyes go, the mind will follow.
  • If you must multitask, do it effectively. Here’s the catch: Not ALL multitasking is not bad. Certain activities can be done together with great results. The trick is to couple activities that do not require the same areas of the brain. For instance, jogging while listening to an audio book for class or sending an email on the bus ride to work.

Armed with the knowledge of the risks of multitasking, head into the New Year living life more fully and effectively. Foster a lifestyle of present awareness and focused activity and note how your mental health, productivity and relationships change in 2016.

If you would like to explore more ways to live a more well-balanced life, contact us at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute. We are here to help.

Shani Bell Headshot Fuller Life

Shani Bell, MAAT, LPC-Intern

Supervised by Dr. Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S, LPC-S and Dr. Sheryl Corbit, EdD, ATR-BC, LPC-AT/S

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