Multi-tasking and Cognitive Costs
As you read this blog post, is your smartphone on speaker, playing bad “hold music” while you wait for a “live” voice to answer? Or maybe you’re glancing back and forth from the computer screen to your phone, responding to text messages in between reading a few sentences of this post. Multi-tasking is in vogue; it’s hip, cool. And how many times do you see “ability to multi-task a must” in help-wanted advertisements? But while we believe we’re multi-tasking, the truth is we’re not at all. A neuroscientist at MIT says that what we’re actually doing is “switching from one task to another very rapidly.” And, though we believe multi-tasking means greater productivity, each time we do this, he adds, there are “cognitive costs.”
Multi-tasking increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the flight-or-fight hormone adrenaline, both over-stimulating the brain and creating what I call “brain fog,” causing loss of focus. To make matters more complicated, multi-tasking creates an addictive-like feedback loop in the pre-fontal cortex, ironically, the area of the brain responsible for helping us stay on task. In other words, our brains are rewarded for losing focus. Multi-tasking is like using cocaine; the more one uses it, the more one wants it, needs it. So when you talk on the phone, check your email, send a text message, boil water for tea, your brain is stimulated by a rush of endogenous opioids. (“More, please!”) Think of potato chips, ice cream, candy – they taste good going down, but the empty-calorie effect brings your brain, and you, to a crashing halt. And making the brain shift from one task to another causes it to burn extra oxygen and glucose, the very ingredients needed to stay on task. When this happens, you might feel wrung-out, ready for a long nap. What happens when you lose steam? You get frustrated, and anxiety ensues, triggering another blast of cortisol to your brain. You can’t think straight. You become more frustrated, and angry. Maybe you get so angry you take it out on others.
And the more you multi-task, the more decisions you need to make: should I answer that phone call, text, or email? Should I go to the grocery store now or later? Which apple should I buy: a Fuji or a Delicious? When making these decisions, you consume so much energy that you end up making poor decisions when it comes to more important issues, like loaning money you don’t have to an unreliable family member, or going out for drinks and getting so drunk that you can’t get out of bed the next morning to make it to that job interview your father-in-law hooked up for you. (Now you’re in trouble.)
Also, researchers have found that multi-tasking can reduce one’s IQ by as much as fifteen points. This decrease is similar to what researchers would expect from smoking pot or staying up all night. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter studying, or smoked pot, you know what it feels like: your brain might as well be stuffed with gauze.
Enough of the harsh truth. Instead, here are some tips to help you resist the temptation to multi-task. Shut off your cell phone when working, and place it far out of reach. If you can’t bring yourself to shut off your phone, envision a stop sign each time it rings or buzzes, and say to yourself, “No, I’m not responding.” Make a list of priorities each day and check them off when complete. Dedicate time each day to complete mindless tasks, like folding the laundry or emptying the dishwasher. Keep your office door closed so others know you don’t want to be disturbed. Put a do not disturb sign on your door. Plaster your office door with yellow caution tape, set up a trap, eat a lot of garlic. Tie yourself to a ship’s mast – it worked for Odysseus, even though he did put up quite the fight.
Of course, I’m thinking big here with these tips, and you might be laughing at this post, saying, “She’s got to be out of her mind to think I can give up multi-tasking. Tell my boss this, and I’ll be fired in a New York minute.” The key is to guard against multi-tasking whenever possible; start small. Maybe it’s shutting off your cell phone for an hour each day for a week, then two hours the next week. Believe me, I too am victim to multi-tasking. In fact, while writing this post my cell phone rang. (I forgot to shut it off.) Guess whose name lit up on the screen? “Mom.” Yep, I answered it.