The dangers of multitasking

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Ana Borges recently wrote an article in the New York Times that changed some of my old notions about “some being special” in their ability to do multiple tasks at once. In general, a woman is better suited to work as a secretary, compared to a man, because she is able to type a message, respond to a call, and take a passing note from her boss, all at the same time. This is called the ability to “multitasking,” whether at home, in the kitchen, in the car, or the factory. “We get stuck in this trap of multitasking, often without realizing it,” says Nicole Byers, a neuropsychologist in Calgary, Canada, who specializes in treating people who suffer from being burnout and boredom.


There are also social and family temptations and pressures that force us to excel in the ability to perform multiple tasks, such as reading an advertisement for a job that requires someone to perform multiple tasks! Since we spend a lot of time on computer screens, desktop, mobile or phone, this forces our minds to perform multiple tasks, and the truth is that we are not adept at doing this, and it does not seem like a wonderful thing, but rather tiring to many of us, and therefore we must find ways in which we can be smarter in our approach.

First, we must modify the nomenclature, as it is not possible, scientifically, to do two things at the same time, unless it is very easy, such as walking while catching up with a friend! “Normally, when people think they are multitasking, they are actually shifting their attention back and forth between two separate tasks,” says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, California. When we engage in the task of cooking dinner, for example, the moment you decide what to do, different areas of your brain, collectively refer to as the “cognitive control network,” cooperate to make it happen.

This network includes areas of your brain involved in executive function, or the ability to plan and execute goal-directed behavior, by creating a mental model of the current job and what it will take to accomplish it. Your brain may do this by relying on external and internal information, such as the ingredients in your refrigerator or your memory of a recipe. This is like drawing on a mental whiteboard, but if your friend calls you to talk about their day, that whiteboard will be erased.

Every time you shift your attention to a new task, your brain has to redirect itself. If you know what’s being cooked is very easy, and the conversation that interrupted the cooking is nice and easy, the switch may be simple, but the more effort each task requires, the more your brain has to sort through competing information and separate goals.

Multitasking has its harmful effects, and this depends on the activity and how skilled you are at doing it. But in general, when we switch between tasks, we pay what is called a “switching cost,” says Dr. Wagner: “We will be slower and less accurate than we would have been if we had stayed on one task,” and speed and accuracy are not the only risks. Multitasking is more cognitively demanding, even when we do things we find enjoyable or easy. Dr Wagner says when we multitask, we can put pressure on our working memory, or our ability to hold and process information in our minds. “The more we overload this system and try to keep it in our brains at one time, the more mental exhaustion it can lead to,” she said. “Other studies have shown that multitasking can make the heart race, raise blood pressure, cause anxiety, dampen our mood, and negatively affect our perception of the work we are doing.”

It is to start monitoring yourself throughout the day, noticing when and how you switch tasks without realizing it. Hence, the advice is simple yet challenging: you will need to practice doing one task, or doing one thing at a time, to gradually retrain your focus and build your endurance. Doing individual tasks may be easier during times when your mental performance is better, and the best times for most people to tackle difficult tasks are mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

By Ahmad alsarraf

e-mail: [email protected]

This news has been read 746 times!

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