Why Multitasking Isn’t a Good Idea

in Uncategorized
January 25th, 2017

In theory, multitasking sounds efficient. Why perform different tasks separately when you can perform them simultaneously and save time, right? In practice, however, multitasking is not as efficient as it may seem. In fact, people are terrible multitaskers; most attempts at multitasking usually only result in one’s attention switching back and forth between tasks, which exhausts the brain of oxygenated glucose. Because of how tiring this switching is, it becomes harder to successfully focus on a single task.

Multitasking is more than just exhausting, though. In a study performed at Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, scientists found that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, involved with attention, has a left and right side. These sides cooperate when people focus on a single task and work independently when they perform two tasks at once. Participants were asked to perform two tasks simultaneously – when scientists told the participants that they would receive a larger reward for accurately completing one of the tasks, fMRI showed increased neural activity in only one side of the prefrontal cortex. When the larger reward became associated instead with the other task, the other side of the prefrontal cortex showed more neural activity, suggesting that the brain splits in half when there are two simultaneous goals. Additionally, when asked to perform a third task, participants repeatedly forgot one of the three tasks they were asked to perform and were three times as likely to make errors as they had when trying to perform two tasks. The study shows that trying to perform more than two tasks at the same time is more challenging because the brain only has two frontal lobes that can attend to the tasks. While some tasks may be difficult to perform simultaneously, others seem much easier. For instance, reading and eating at the same time is easier than reading and driving because eating demands less engagement from the prefrontal cortex than driving.   

Since multitasking generally increases the likelihood of error and is mentally exhausting, how else can a person cope with a busy schedule? Instead of multitasking, scientists recommend taking breaks every two hours, and devoting different activities to specific timeslots, such as only using social media in the morning and midday. As a result of less distraction, productivity will increase and stress will decrease.

Nathaniel Meshberg




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