Many people pride themselves on their ability to multitask – juggling Zoom meetings, while also writing memos, exchanging text messages, watching videos, and composing emails as well as coping with other inputs from electronic communications.
But along with serious doubts about the quality of work that you can get done while multitasking, researchers are questioning what this barrage of distractions is doing to your memory and your overall health.
In going through the research on multitasking, I’ve found quite a few studies that connect multitasking with being overweight.
For instance, a study that involved researchers from Dartmouth College and Ohio State and Rice Universities found that multitaskers run a higher risk of gaining large amounts of weight and accumulating unhealthy amounts of body fat. Added to that, the investigation found that multitaskers’ brain activity made them overly responsive to the temptations of over-eating.1 And that, of course, leads to weight gain.
Similar types of results were discovered by researchers at the University of Illinois. They found that folks who sit for long periods of time multitasking are more easily distracted. And when they frequently took on several tasks at once, the barrage of technological distractions was linked to weight gain and a less dependable memory.2
Multitasking Diminishes Cognitive Function
Right in line with those conclusions, researchers in Canada have demonstrated that multitaskers tend to make impulsive, quick decisions that are intuitive and wrong-headed rather than giving problems deeper, more prolonged attention. They add that this type of distracted, rushed decision-making lowers the quality of performance in the classroom and at work.3
Although when you multitask you may think you are accomplishing more than you might if you focused on doing one thing at a time, research shows that immersing yourself in several tasks simultaneously actually lowers not only your cognitive function but your productivity.
One of the key problems is that multitasking doesn’t really consist of doing several tasks at once. It entails constantly switching back and forth among several tasks.4 And the research shows that with every switch of your attention from one task to another, you lose time and mental focus. So, constantly re-establishing your focus consumes extra time and energy that slows you down.
But there’s more: Analyses of brain activity show that the various jobs you juggle as you multitask often require the engagement of different areas of the brain. As an example, if you flit from video to email to Zoom call, the effort involved in the switching of brain function also hampers your ability to work productively and with precision.5
In this vein, a study at George Mason University directly measured how disruptive multitasking can be. In this research they examined how well people wrote essays when they also had to cope with other tasks at the same time.
As you might expect, they performed more poorly than other people in the study who could work without distractions.6 That’s why the obvious conclusion the researchers came to is that you should “turn off your cell phone and disable notifications such as e-mail while trying to complete an important task.”
Unfortunately, it looks like multitasking is here to stay for many people.
For instance, in my time spent in local parks I have often seen parents with their attention locked on their phone screens while supposedly keeping an eye on their small kids at the playground. And a study in Canada confirms that modern-day parenting is suffering because parents are too addicted to their little screens.7
Another troubling development is the distracting amount of material that is now displayed on car dashboards. Researchers in Asia warn that we had better start limiting dashboard icons and other information that interferes with safe driving.8
To me it’s obvious there’s now too much information and too much multitasking in many aspects of our lives. If you want to be truly healthy, focus on doing one thing at a time well. That’s a lot more satisfying than being constantly bathed – and overwhelmed – by the technology that’s invaded the modern world.