This is what happens to your brain when you multi-task
How many browser tabs do you have open right now? I bet it’s more than two. How about your phone, when was the last time you checked it? If it was more than seven minutes ago then you're already beating the average. With all of the distractions of modern life, we’re undeniably a "do more in less time" generation; but before you sit there feeling smug at your impressive ability to spin all of the proverbial plates, it’s time to take a step back and consider what really happens to your brain, and by extension your body, every time you multi-task. Get ready for a reality check.
1. It slows your brain down
Well first things first, it’s time to burst your productivity bubble. Research by the American Psychological Association has shown that rather than making your more productive, multi-tasking merely makes you think you are. Instead, by jumping constantly between priorities it can take you up to 40 per cent longer to complete an individual task, largely because your brain has to get back in the zone every time you swap. And sorry to break it to you, but even when you think you’re the exception to the rule, you’re not - only two per cent of humans are actually good at multi-tasking, the rest of us are just jumping around from screen to screen.
2. Your stress levels increase
Sometimes, we just don’t have a choice but to multi-task because with kids, work, partners and pets all demanding our attention and dragging us in different directions, there’s just too much going on not to. But while you may think of multi-tasking as just “getting stuff done”, it is in actual fact all the while increasing the cortisol levels in your bloodstream - otherwise known as “the stress hormone”. Stress, as you probably know, not only leaves us feeling more wired but contributes to a whole host of health problems including high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease. If you ever needed an excuse to delegate the washing up and ignore the ironing pile, this is it.
3. You get distracted by irrelevant information
The thing about multi-tasking is that it’s a bit of a cyclical beast: Once you start, it reduces your ability to focus on one thing when completing other tasks. Eyal Ophir, a researcher at Stanford University, ran a study into concentration and cognitive ability looking at two groups of people - those who regularly multi-task with electrical devices and those who don't. The results were clear: "[The high multitaskers] couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.” Unfortunately, you can’t blame anyone else for this one either - we self-interrupt every three and a half minutes.
4. Your IQ drops
A study of 1,100 British office workers undertaken by the University of London found that people multi-tasking while using electronic media, for example texting while watching TV, actually exhibited a decline in IQ that was similar to someone having smoked marijuana or experiencing the effects of a lack of sleep. In some of the male participants, the effect of this was so substantial that they dropped a full 15 IQ points, leaving them with a score equivalent to that of an eight-year-old. Would you trust an eight-year-old to write your emails for you? Didn’t think so.
5. Your EQ drops too
Bad news for those of you losing IQ points, because every time you multi-task your emotional intelligence drops a little too. Those who multi-task in social situations, whether that’s checking your phone while out for dinner with a friend or staring at the TV while having a conversation with your partner, exhibit lower levels of self and social awareness. But even if you don’t care about your dropping EQ levels, then forget about the fact that multi-tasking is bad for you and remember one thing - no one likes the person who's checking their phone instead of focusing on pizza and chat. No one.
6. It may literally rot your brain
We all know that alcohol is bad for our brains, but it turns out that multi-tasking may be too. In 2014, researchers at the University of Surrey compared the amount of time people spent multi-tasking on electrical devices with MRI scans of their brains - with surprising results. They found that those who spent the highest amount of time using multiple devises simultaneously had lower brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for emotional and cognitive control. This research is still in the early stages and more work needs to be done to confirm its findings on a larger scale but Kep Kee Loh, one of the neuroscientists who led the study, is optimistic: “Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC.”
It's clear then that no matter how productive we like to think we're being when we multi-task, the likelihood is that we are actually doing quite the opposite. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, argues that for most people effective multi-tasking is merely an illusion: “As humans, we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought — we can only hold a little bit of information in the mind at any single moment.”
At work especially, the ability to multi-task is almost seen as a prerequisite to success. Can’t juggle three phone calls, eight reports and an excel spreadsheet, all while maintaining the grace of a gazelle? Better not expect that promotion anytime soon. Yet it seems that if you really do want to get ahead then it's just better to be in the moment - so put your phone away, turn your email notifications off, close this tab and instead just focus on whatever you need to achieve right now.
(And if you made it all the way through this article without getting distracted at least once then maybe, just maybe, you’re in the magical two per cent.)