On the surface, it seems as though multitasking would make a great productivity tool. After all, if you can book a plane ticket and quickly shoot off an email while you’re on a phone meeting at work, why not? Haven’t you just masterfully killed two birds with one stone? Shouldn’t you be congratulated for being a brilliant time manager?
Research says no.
Multitasking will drop your I.Q. faster than smoking pot.
One study showed that workers distracted by incoming email and text messages saw a whopping 10-point drop in their I.Q.s.
What’s the effect of a 10-point drop in I.Q.? It’s the same as losing an entire night’s sleep, and more than twice the effect of smoking marijuana.
Multitasking slashes your productivity by as much as 40%.
We delude and fool ourselves into believing that we’re getting more done by multitasking. In reality, a day of multitasking results in less accomplishment, less productivity, and at the end of the day, something perhaps worse than mere low productivity.
Multitasking skyrockets feelings of stress and anxiety, eating away at the enjoyment of free time.
The stress that multitasking causes at work doesn’t simply go away at the end of the work day.
Instead stress follows you home, where it can interfere with your most important relationships and eat away at your ability to relax. At bedtime, a head and heart still roiling with stress and anxiety can interfere with sleep, and wake you up in the morning with a feeling of fear that drives you to try to multitask more.
Why is this? Why is multitasking so detrimental to productivity?
Executive coach Peter Bregman says,”We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.” [Emphasis mine].
According to this article, “The human brain doesn’t multi-task like an expert juggler; it switches frantically between tasks like a bad amateur plate-spinner.” That’s stressful. This self-imposed stress raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol which is associated with weight gain, depression, and poor wound healing. Increased cortisol can also predispose us to being more aggressive and impulsive, and it can raise risk of cardiovascular disease.
The danger for students age 12 – 26? Multitasking directly interferes with learning.
I recently wrote about how your child’s habit of texting, emailing, and using social media during college classes could cost your family $28,000. You can find that article here.
But multitasking hurts outside-of-class work too.
A report in Cyberpsychology and Behavior sited here says that, “The more time young people spend multi-tasking, the harder they find concentrating on single intellectual tasks, such as reading a textbook.”
Professor Russell Poldrack, psychologist at the University of California, reports on the specific dangers of “trying to learn while doing something else.” (For example, doing homework while watching TV or surfing social media.) “When you try to learn in a distracted environment,” Poldrack says, “you send information to an inappropriate part of the brain.” Using brain scans, Poldrack has found that, “if we multi-task while studying, the information goes into the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills, from where it is difficult to retrieve facts and ideas. [Emphasis mine.] If we are not distracted, it heads to the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information.”
It’s important that students get the message on the dangers of multitasking early on.
How to free yourself from the destructive habit of multitasking
1. Set aside a period of time where you refuse to multitask. It may be an hour, a day, or an entire week.
2. Identify people who think they’re entitled to get immediate responses from you. Let these people know that you’re going to be setting aside periods of time for “deep work,” and so will no longer be available to answer their emails, calls and texts immediately. (Don’t worry, they’ll live.)
3. During your “deep work” time, eliminate incoming notifications on your phone and computer. You might consider changing the settings on your computer so that it never notifies you of any incoming notifications, and then simply put your phone on “do not disturb” and turn it upside down.
4. If you have children, give them a way break through and get to you in emergencies. My children know that if they call me twice, quickly, they’ll break through the “do not disturb” I’ve set on my iPhone and get straight to me.
5. Make it a practice to do only one thing at a time. Notice how your purposeful focus allows you to get more done, and how it increases your personal satisfaction with life.
6. At the end of your deep work time, note how good you feel. Perhaps you’ll be like executive coach Peter Bregman, who wrote in the Harvard Business Review about how excellent he felt after about his one-week break from multitasking. “Being free of multitasking was delightful,” he said. “My stress dropped dramatically. It was a relief to do only one thing at a time. I felt liberated from the strain of keeping so many balls in the air at each moment. It felt reassuring to finish one thing before going to the next.” In addition, Bregman reported that he made real progress on challenging projects, he lost patience for things that wasted his time, he had patience for useful and enjoyable tasks, and “there was no downside.”
6. Consider using an app that can free you from the constant pull to multitask. See the 2-minute video trailer for the Freedom app below. (This is not a commercial endorsement and I get nothing for telling you this; I just think the Freedom app is a great tool.)
I hope that freedom from multitasking will give you time and space to think a little more about the future.
For clear, step-by-step help getting your kids through college debt-free and into jobs they love and excel at afterward, get your copy of my book:
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Read just one chapter of LAUNCH every 1-3 months while your child’s in middle school and high school, and you’ll know every viable strategy for debt-free college at exactly the right time to implement it.
And if your child’s already well past middle school? That’s OK; you can run to catch up. But the process of getting your kids through college debt-free goes more smoothly the earlier you start it – especially if you’re not planning to save up any money to pay for college.
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Who is Jeannie Burlowski?
Jeannie is a full-time author, academic strategist, speaker, and podcast host. Her writing, speaking, and podcasting help parents set their kids up to graduate college debt-free and move directly into careers they excel at and love. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, NerdWallet, and US News and World Report.