How many times this week have you looked at your to-do list and groaned? We bet there is a lot to finish! And to get through it all, you would want to take on the role of a multi-tasker. That seems like the best way to be efficient, right?
But, hold on. You actually might be doing less work than you think, when multi-tasking. Our brain isn’t really built for such task switching. It’s true! Let’s look at some compelling research about the impact of multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking leads to significant cognitive impairment, says research by University of Sussex. They found that high multi-taskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explains: “That the way we are interacting with multiple devices might be changing the way we think. These changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”
Another form of cognitive skew that results from multi-tasking, is lowering of I.Q. scores. University of London found that participants who multi-tasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines. These declines were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night! Scary, right? This costs companies billions of dollars of productivity.
When we switch between tasks, our attention doesn’t shift completely. It partially remains with the previous task. This by-product of multi-tasking is called attention residue. It happens because our brain takes about four times the amount of energy to identify and function with a new task, as opposed to focusing on just one. Though we don’t realize, as we toggle between social-media, calls, meetings and in-person requests, our attention keeps getting fragmented. The more the number of unfinished tasks, the worse your performance across them all.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman speaks about two systems of thought—one fast and automatic, and the other slower and more logical. According to him, when we multi-task, our mind goes into the auto-pilot mode as there is a sense of urgency, and this reduces our rational thinking. That is how we arrive at conclusions faster, make judgements and snap decisions. But, to make effective decisions we often need breathing space!
It is possible to break this cycle of damage, and cap the instant gratification you get by quickly responding to an email, or sending a text while attending to a larger task. Georgetown Professor Cal Newport says, “high-quality work produced is a function of two things—the amount of time you spend on the work, and the intensity of your focus.” You need to practice challenging your mind and wean yourself off from distraction. As for multiple unfinished tasks… don’t switch between them. Give each task its due and watch your productivity soar.