Your Brain on Multitasking

You sit down at your computer Monday morning to get some work done and end up busily clicking back and forth between your email inbox and whatever project is in front of you. At the morning’s 10 am meeting, you lackadaisically peruse your social media accounts and answer more emails. You jump in on a last-minute conference call while making your evening commute. You brush your teeth while reading up on the day’s news on your tablet.

Sound familiar? For most of us, the average workday involves more than a lot of multitasking. Just sitting down to write this article has me listening to Spotify while intermittently checking and responding to email and running to the kitchen to keep an eye on lunch.

It seems like everyone, everywhere is multitasking, but, as it turns out, only 2% of us are actually good at it, according to research conducted by David Strayer, director of the applied cognition lab at the University of Utah. For the remaining 98% of people, multitasking can do more harm than good, making us feel like we’re accomplishing more when, in fact, studies conducted by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer, and discussed in the American Psychological Association’s report Multitasking: Switching Costs, suggest that trying to focus on more than one thing causes a 40% drop in productivity and even a 10% drop in IQ. Horrifyingly, those drops in IQ are equivalent to missing a night of sleep. Study after study confirms multitasking actually decreases what it purports to increase: productivity.

So what exactly is multitasking? What does it do to the brain, and why does it leave us so unproductive? Multitasking takes place in one of three settings:

  1. when we try to perform two tasks simultaneously, a.k.a. dual tasking;
  2. when we switch from one task to another, a.k.a. task-switching; or
  3. when we perform two or more tasks in quick succession.

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