The Myth of Multitasking – and How It Impacts Your Mental Health and Wellbeing

Many people believe that women are excellent at multitasking, while men don’t do as well. However, the truth is that no one is really that good at multitasking, regardless of gender. In fact, not only are we not built for multitasking, but you could be doing yourself more harm than good by spending your time trying to do multiple things at once. Our brains aren’t really  built for multitasking, and trying to multitask can have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Let’s take a look at what exactly multitasking is, and how it could be affecting you, as well as how you can improve the way that you work by ditching multitasking.

The Three Types of Multitasking

There are plenty of simple tasks that we can do at the same time. It’s not difficult to talk and walk simultaneously, or to watch TV while you’re eating. However, when it comes to more complex tasks, humans aren’t designed to be able to handle doing several things at once. According to Dr David Meyer from the University of Michigan “as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, and you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks, there just aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.”

Trying to do two complicated tasks at once is just one type of multitasking. There are two other types of multitasking that many of us attempt to do, but which we’re not designed for.

The three types of multitasking are:

  • Multitasking – trying to do more than one task at the same time
  • Switching costs – switching back and forth between tasks
  • Attention residue – performing several tasks in rapid succession

Each type of multitasking can affect the way that you are able to work, and prevent you from doing your best work. If you’re spending your time trying to multitask, it’s likely that you’re not doing any of the tasks particularly well. In addition, you could be causing damage to your brain and your mental health by multitasking.

The Impact Multitasking Has on Your Brain

Multitasking can have a number of effects on your brain. In fact, some studies have shown that being a multitasker could permanently alter the structure of your brain. One study from the University of Sussex in the UK showed that people who spend a lot of time multitasking using media devices (such as smartphones and TV) had reductions in the grey matter of their brains.

Multitasking could also have an impact on your short-term memory, and your long-term memory. A 2011 study found that multitasking affects your ability to retain memory while working on a task, while a 2016 study showed the same, and also identified an affect on long-term memory.

Increased distractibility is another possible consequence of multitasking. A study showed that multitasking made people more likely to exhibit behavioral distractibility. This could be because it causes the person to lose the ability to tell between an important distraction and an unimportant one.

How Multitasking Affects Your Mental Health

In addition to affecting cognitive function and the brain’s structure, multitasking could affect your brain in another way. Mental health problems can increase with multitasking, including increased anxiety, chronic stress and depression. Multitasking takes up all of your brain’s energy, which neuroscientists say can cause you to be less focused and become more anxious.

Increased stress is another risk of multitasking. A study of students showed that those who multitasked more experienced increased stress levels. Another study linked multitasking to higher levels of depression and social anxiety. Multitasking is mentally taxing, demanding all of your brain’s energy. This leaves you with less energy to deal with everyday situations and to manage your emotions. Many people know what it’s like to feel more emotional when they’re tired. Regular multitasking can lead to your feeling drained of energy all the time.

Switching Costs

Switching costs are the consequences of frequently switching between tasks. You can’t do two complex tasks at once, which means that when you’re multitasking, what you’re really doing is bouncing back and forth between different tasks. Although you can quickly switch your focus from one task to another, it takes a lot of your brain’s energy to do so. Many people think that it’s a faster way to get their work done, but the opposite is actually true. Rapidly switching back and forth between tasks means that you will take longer to get your work done because the time and energy required in switching your attention and working out what to do and where to start each time you switch tasks.

How Single-tasking Is Superior

If you really want to make the most of the time that you have available at work, it’s single-tasking that you should be doing. Working on one task at a time is the best way to use your brain’s energy, particularly if you group like tasks together. Working on single tasks means less stress, cutting out the energy required to switch back and forth between tasks. It’s better for staying focused, helping you to concentrate on what you’re doing and turn down other tasks and distractions that aren’t currently a priority. It can even help you to think more creatively, forcing you to find creative ways to use the resources that you have.

Quit Multitasking and Do More

Giving up multitasking can be hard. When you’re accustomed to switching between multiple tasks, it can become a habit, making it difficult to stop. The first step you should take if you want to start working on single tasks is to create a work schedule. Allocate your time to different tasks so you know when to focus on what. You can start by focusing yourself for short periods of 15 to 20 minutes to get used to it. Block out distractions from email by only reviewing them at set times, instead of whenever an email arrives in your inbox. If there are websites that you know distract you, such as social media sites, block them using a browser extension to prevent them from tempting you. Make sure to take breaks too, but don’t take them for too long.

Multitasking isn’t the answer if you want to work more effectively, efficiently and productively. Focus on one task at a time to improve your mental health, wellbeing and productivity.

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