The Many Pitfulls of Multitasking

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"Multi-tasking = Screwing everything up simultaneously." - Anonymous

I read a recent article saying students who multi-tasked while studying (watching Glee or tweeting, for instance) got worse grades and retained less information, but felt happier.

Excuse me, but this is a stupid study. What mother who has wrangled with her kids over homework couldn’t tell you the same?

Constant distraction is a modern dilemma that can actually drop your IQ by ten points, if not more. (Need I cite the increasing amount of pedestrians who are creating car accidents by walking and texting, so unaware of their surroundings they step out into traffic?) Though multi-tasking has always been held up as something admirable, especially for women, the facts from recent studies are these: It’s a myth that women are better than men at multi-tasking. Nobody is good at multi-tasking.

“People can’t do it very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” according to Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT who has studied the subject for years. There is an upper limit to how much your brain can process at one time. The more little things you have to decide on, the less your mind will be able to decide on the big things. The brain “degrades” after making any decision, large or small.

Albert Einstein had a wardrobe full of the same gray suits, so that he didn’t have to spend time choosing what to wear, thus freeing his brain energy for larger issues. (Albert is one of my heroes, but no wonder he always looked so frumpy!)

What are you actually doing when you “think” you are multi-tasking? Multi-taskers are really just shifting focus rapidly, from one task to another, which is why multi-tasking increases the stress hormone cortisol and makes you less productive and less creative in your responses, and more prone to outbursts, too.

The brain is built to focus on one task at a time, and to be able to filter other stimuli coming in which may signal danger. That’s why your brain jumps at loud noises, flashing lights - which are now just the common tweets and alerts from your cell phone, some important, some not. If you are fatigued from info overload, the part of the brain that makes decisions slows down.

Right now I’m finishing a book, working a new job, and raising two kids under the age of four. Is it any wonder the other day as I was driving down the road, I forgot where I was going? Later, I found myself pouring wine into my son’s sippy cup. Another sign I was on overload: my right eye started twitching like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.

Are you on overload? Take a break instead of a breakdown. The mind works better well rested and well fed:

Rest. We need pauses in our mental space to refresh brain power. If you are having a hard time making a big decision, sleep on it. Allow yourself some daily uninterrupted space.

Exercise. When you hit a wall, take a break. Go for a quick walk. Stand up, let your eyes rest somewhere other than the computer screen. Stretch. Take deep breaths.

Fuel your brain. Don’t skip breakfast. Eat well. Brain foods: omega 3s found in fish and nuts. High energy snacks through the day (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, yogurt, fruit) can help you through the afternoon slump, when multitasking is at its worst.

Disconnect. Turn off Twitter, Facebook, and email. We all need to cut the technology umbilical cord once a week. My technology-free day is Sunday. Give it a try. At first it may feel uncomfortable, but if worked into your routine, I guarantee that you will enjoy the time with your children in a more focused way, and will begin to look forward to your tech-free day.

On that note, please excuse me while I disconnect to reconnect for family time!

Ciao,

Princess Ivana