Multi-Tasking and Your Mental Health

Does multi-tasking affect your health? It may seem like it is increasing productivity and saving you time and energy, and many women are proud of their multi-tasking abilities. However, ongoing research has confirmed that multi-tasking can have negative effects on levels of productivity and overall brain health in some cases.

What is Multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking is defined as:

  • Doing one or more tasks simultaneously
  • Switching from one task to another
  • Switching to other tasks in rapid succession

Multi-tasking Is Safe Only If Different Stimuli Are Used

Experts agree that multi-tasking is safer if the tasks involved do not use the same stimuli, such as reading a message from the laptop while listening to music. Our brain is not designed to deal with the same stimulus challenge at the exact same time. In fact, the research shows that we are wired to do one task at a time.

That is why driving a vehicle and texting on a phone at the same time is considered extremely dangerous. You are using the same visual stimulus. They are both competing for the same limited focus. Although it appears you are multi-tasking, you can only be actively engaged with one or the other.

It is a sobering fact that a person who is talking/texting on a cell-phone while driving in a car places themselves and others in a life-death situation because not being totally focused on driving at 30mph can mean losing half a second which could be the difference between crashing into something, e.g., the back of another car or being safe. Higher speeds can mean the risk is more lethal.

We all know that it is easy enough to do this even with a moment’s inattention even without being on a cell phone! For example, getting distracted by the scenery.

So instead of doing two things at once, you are rapidly switching from one to the other, and back again. If your attention is attracted to the phone for a second too long, the job of consciously controlling the vehicle ceases, and catastrophe can follow.

Another example is when you are attempting to listen to multiple conversations around you. It is impossible to listen to two people who are talking to you simultaneously, because your auditory stimulus becomes overwhelmed. In addition, if you are the person not being listened to it is rather disappointing and humiliating.

Interesting tip

I have tried to pacify a crying baby by clicking my thumbs and third fingers on both hands simultaneously near both ears of the child who stops crying, becomes calm and then smiles, having forgotten what he or she was crying about while trying to pay attention to a new stimulus.  Try it sometime. 😊

Multi-tasking Can Harm Your Memory Ability

If you find yourself multi-tasking, each task that your mind is engaged in will drain a part of your mental energy. As your mental energy drains, you become more absent-minded. This is because your mind begins to drift.

Even if you could complete the two tasks successfully, you will quite probably not recall how you completed the tasks. This is because our brain does not have the ability to fully focus on two or several tasks at the same time. It also takes longer to complete the tasks.

Disorganized people can kid themselves that they make progress on a project by doing a little bit of one every now and again.  This is however a lack of having a cohesive plan and system for working.

Each time you multi-task, your mind becomes a juggling act.  When you multitask, you are diluting your mind’s investment towards each task.

Researchers found that there can be mental blocks created by shifting from one task to another, costing 40% of production time (Meyer, Evans, Rubenstein, 2001).

Switching between two or more tasks, as you have probably found, means that when you return to a previous task it is a case of “Where was I”.  You then take time to remember where you were up to and then get back into the task.

When Multi-taskers Think They Perform Better

A study headed by Zheng Wang of Ohio State University showed that people who were text messaging while being asked to focus on some images displayed on a computer monitor had decreased levels of performance.

What makes this finding even more troubling is that those subjects who were asked to multi-task using the same visual stimulus, believed they performed better, although the results showed the opposite.

Their ability to focus on images displayed on their computer monitor plummeted up to 50% even though they thought they were performing perfectly. The same study participants were asked to multi-task using different stimuli, such as visual and auditory, and were found to have reduced levels of performance as much as 30%.

Professor Wang stated that performance level perception when multi-tasking is not the same, as the results proved. Researchers have also found that media multi-tasking increases your risks of developing impaired cognitive control. You will find however, that teenagers insist that listening to their favourite music while studying increases their concentration!

The most current research is confirming that multi-tasking means “performing multiple tasks sub-optimally”. Unfortunately, in addition to productivity losses, there is a compounding, taxing burden placed on the mental and emotional faculties. This results in accumulated stress, which is already a very real problem for many, if not most, to some degree.

So why stress yourself even more than you are at present?

If you do have to multi-task, make sure you remember the rules of the task at hand and make a deliberate intention to change rules at the next task. Write down where you were up to when you stop one task and leave everything ready to resume it later.

This works OK unless there are safety and productivity demands.

Switching tasks reasonably successfully or doing two things at once also depends on the complexity of the task.

Air traffic controllers and pilots often perform many tasks simultaneously.  They make decisions while under pressure. They become accustomed to doing this, but still need time off to rest their minds.

Consider a juggler.  Sometimes we seem to be juggling many tasks at once.  But watch the juggler, and the absolute concentration which he employs to avoid dropping the balls. He does not contemplate doing anything else at the same time!

Think of a neurosurgeon.  He or she needs absolute concentration and steady hands over a long period of time.  They usually have rest breaks, but do not return to the operation and think “Where was I?” Everything is planned with precision and focus.

Our brains are not designed for multi-tasking as it can lead to mental overload.

Although technology today makes it difficult for us to avoid multi-tasking, just make yourself more aware of when it is happening and try to remove the overload on your mind as much as possible.

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