Multitasking vs. Efficiency: which one is it?

How many times during the day do you check Facebook, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki? How many phone calls do you take during your lunch break? How many donuts can you eat with a cup of tea in front of a TV or computer? By the way, would you be able to remember what those donuts tasted like? Multitasking is an essential attribute of our hectic time. But how justified is our need for multitasking, really?


Quality of life lived Julius Caesar style

Distractions are all around, and blocking all this “noise” is virtually impossible. Unless of course you would be willing to lock yourself in a bunker, insert earphones, turn off internet and cell phone.

We are trying to jump from one task to another telling ourselves that we manage to do more. But is that really true? Is multitasking as efficient as it’s cracked up to be? No, no and no again. Unfortunately, any attempts to do several things at once end up slowing us down. So what can you do? For starters, let’s discuss what multitasking essentially is and how it affects us.

Multitasking exhausts and emotionally drains us. A human is unable to efficiently solve more than two tasks at a time. This is a proven fact. It has to do with our brain having two hemispheres. We can indeed do two tasks at once: the front lobe of the right hemisphere will be responsible for one task, and the front lobe of the left hemisphere – for the other. If a third task is added to the list, the brain will have to work in a constant switching mode: completing a part of one task, switching to another, returning to the first one etc. Even if we think we are doing several things at once, this is nothing more than an illusion. The notion of saving yourself a lot of time is just as illusive.

It’s safe to assume that even if you try to keep the time required for switching to the minimum, time loss is significant. During an experiment it was established that when trying to complete several tasks at a time you spend 40% more time than you otherwise would! What about the emotional side? Jumping from one task to another and back drains us both physically and emotionally, bringing us closer to a state of stress. For all we know, the disease of the 21st century known as chronic fatigue stems from multitasking – an attempt to do it all at once.

By the way, even the process of completing two different tasks at once will be efficient only if those problems are completely different in terms of their cognitive value. In other words, you can do two things at once if different parts of the brain are responsible for each one: listen to music without any words and speaking etc.

How does multitasking affect our brain?

Turns out, multitasking changes the way our brain works. When we focus on a single task, the front lobe of the brain cortex is activated. In those moments respective parts of both hemispheres work together. If there are two tasks, the hemispheres try to work on their own. It can be happening concurrently if the tasks are comparatively different i.d. require activity of different brain zones. If both tasks are of an average or high level of cognition, there’s all that switching going on between the hemispheres.

Constant switching inevitably leads to depletion of our resources and mistakes. The number of mistakes tends to increase in geometrical progression, especially when it comes to tasks of average and high cognitive load. For instance, when doing three tasks at once you will make 3 times as many mistakes as you would doing two tasks. Scientific studies show that multitasking affects our emotional and physical state quite negatively. Apart from depleting our resources, switching between tasks disorients us. As a result, the tasks we are unsuccessfully trying to complete can even temporarily lower our intellect level. In addition, the brain working in the stressful multitasking mode results in an increase in cortisol and adrenaline levels. This can lead to developing hypertension as well as changes in immune and endocrinal system.

Also, multitasking virtually changes our brain, reducing its ability to concentrate, memorize and think creatively. Multitaskers lose the ability to filter out unnecessary information and focus their attention on something. They also lose the volume of their operative memory. The natural plasticity of the human brain becomes a double-edged sword: the brain adapts to thinking in a multitasking mode, but returning to the previous state is practically impossible.

Protection against distractions

Turns out, our brain is wired to deliver maximum efficiency and has natural mechanisms to block various distractions. When we are focused on something, the brain automatically filters out and blocks all the irrelevant stimuli. In addition, different areas of the brain synchronize to cope with the task on hand in most efficient way possible. Any irrelevant connections between brain areas are being suppressed at this time.

Why do we crave multitasking so much?

It’s actually pure chemistry. When our brain gets distracted from coping with a certain task, it receives a stimulating hormonal shot of sorts. Everything new affects it as a drug, making us feel light euphoria and satisfaction. This is why we feel like heroic workaholics when coping with several tasks at once. Even if those are primitive, simple and not so important, they still give us the satisfaction of checking the box. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to focus on solving one bigger problem, as it requires a lot more mental effort.

When can multitasking be useful?

In cases when you combine tasks that require different cognitive loads. For instance, any simple process (washing dishes, ironing, brushing teeth and so on) can be accompanied by some mental activity. Practice shows that in those moments the brain can deliver quite creative solutions letting you see the problem from a different perspective.

However, creative people should take another important aspect into account. Fascination with multitasking limits their creative thinking. Constant switching from process to process does not leave any space for new spontaneous ideas. Inspiration comes to those focusing on completing a specific task.


So is it really that hopeless?

Of course not. Multitasking is not just a curse of modern days but also its essential attribute. No matter how much we want to get away from it, a clean break is impossible. You can only try to minimize your dependency on it. Also, you can make it work for you. How? We will discuss it next time.

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