Multitasking In Midlife Is More Destructive Than You Think
For your convenience here is the audio version of this article. Press Play to listen.
Why Is Multitasking Bad For Your Brain and Body?
Some people pride themselves on being world-class multitaskers. But are they really any more productive than folks who focus on one task at a time?
It’s not like it used to be. The glow of the smartphone screen is a constant temptation, and the buzz of messages makes you think you can and should be talking to a bunch of your friends, family, and colleagues while completing other tasks.
What is multitasking, really?
Before we decide whether it’s good, we have to define multitasking. The problem is, no-one has a precise idea of what it is. It could mean:
- Performing two or more tasks at the same time
- Moving back and forth between two or more tasks
- Rapidly getting through a wide range of tasks one after the other
Scientists generally don’t agree on whether you can actually do more than one task competently at the same time. Instead, you just switch tasks rapidly. Which doesn’t sound as impressive, really.
Multitasking is simply second nature to some people, making them feel like a puppet master who’s forcing their to-do list to work for them. But what, truly, is the best way to approach your responsibilities? Ticking off one task at a time, or chipping away at a little bit of everything as the day progresses?
As you make your way through midlife, with your arms full of work, family, and health obligations, multitasking is likely to get more confusing and less effective – but also less avoidable. You might even get a buzz from it, and some people feel empowered while multitasking. So where do you draw the line? Some tasks simply demand more of your attention than others.
Free, instant communication and eternal connectedness are useful. But smart devices haven’t given their users clearer headspaces through their increased speed and efficiency. Instead, they’ve simply cemented the idea that you should be replying to constant messages instantly, carrying work around with you all day, and scattering your attention in a billion directions while continuing to fulfil mundane tasks.
We can’t all be Dr. Hfuhruhurr in The Man With Two Brains. Sure, maybe you can pull off switching between tasks quickly. But should you? Team Vippi takes a closer look (and we promise we’re not doing anything else at the same time).
Why multitasking is bad for your brain
This is the trailer for Locke, an extremely stressful film where a man drives a car down a British motorway, tries to coordinate a complex construction job, hide an affair from his wife, and support a pregnant woman all through the in-car Bluetooth connection. As you can imagine, it doesn’t quite go to plan. For a 90-minute crash course in reasons not to multitask, watch this movie.
Multitasking isn’t going to give you permanent brain damage. But multitasking for long periods might leave you distracted, flustered, and stressed – and you might not even finish the tasks.
Picture your laptop web browser (you may well be looking at it right now). If you’ve got 50 tabs open, your computer’s processor may slow down. Each page will take longer to load. And after a while, you’ll lose track of which tab you’re supposed to click on, as they’ll only show a few letters of each page heading.
Besides, how much information are you really taking in from each page?
At worst, multitasking can cost you your life. You might be a good driver and a slick talker independently of each other, but talking on the phone while you drive diverts you from a task that absolutely demands your full attention. And research has shown that it makes your driving worse
Over the course of the day, you’ll switch tasks a number of times. Even during leisure time, when your eyes move from the Mighty Ducks reruns you’re watching with your children to your phone to your work calendar and back, it costs you a little mental energy with every step.
Do that for a whole day, and you’re going to feel drained early on without realising why.
What’s happening in your brain during multitasking?
Executive function is how your brain puts together your mental to-do list. It’s the way you prioritize tasks, as well as choosing their method and timing. This works in two stages, according to one research paper:
- Goal shifting – choosing one task over another. Your brain makes the decision to focus on a different immediate priority. (e.g. “I’m writing a letter, but I have to stop now and work on a spreadsheet.”)
- Rule activation – switching the brain means it has to pause one process and start another process for the next task. Your brain stops using the “instruction manual” it was reading for the previous task and accesses the tools it needs for the new one. (e.g. “I am now closing Word and opening Excel.”)
Switching between these tasks only loses you a tiny fraction of a second – but those tiny fractions build up. Over the course of a day, this amounts to lost efficiency and a tired, drained brain.
In the case of the example above, if you were a computer responding to a user’s decision to work on a spreadsheet instead of a letter, they have to close Word, find Excel, open it, and wait for it to load. It’s easy and super quick in today’s world but still takes a little time and processing power.
Even if you have both Word and Excel running simultaneously because you think you’re saving time, it still takes a fraction longer to process than running each program individually. Even computers are made less efficient by multitasking when you have many tabs open – so imagine what it can do to the human brain!
All that brainpower! An example
Let’s say you’re in a Zoom meeting on your laptop but remember that the children need picking up from school.
You note that your car needs collecting after a breakdown to complete that task. So you divert your attention from the Zoom meeting and send a sneaky WhatsApp message to your mechanic on your phone, checking if your car’s ready.
This switch is something most people do hundreds of times a day without thinking. But in that time, you’re communicating with one set of people in one way through one medium, and then switching:
- Your mode of communication (conversation → text message = spoken → written language)
- The subjects you’re thinking about (work → childcare → car repairs)
- The subject you’re talking about (work → car repairs)
- The communication tool (laptop webcam → WhatsApp)
At some point in your life, your brain has had to learn each and every one of these tasks. Just like a computer accessing Word or Excel, it has to access its memory banks to pull up the ‘file’ on what you want to do. So if you’re rapidly switching between them, your brain has to deactivate the previous rule (say, how to use a laptop and Zoom) and activate the new rule.
If that was exhausting to read, imagine how much mental energy you expend doing that 400 times a day!
Is multitasking *ever* good for you
Some studies suggested talking on the phone can help drivers hold attention on long-haul trips. (But is it really worth finding out if you’re in this category or the one where you suck at talking and driving?)
Students who doodle in uninspiring lectures might also absorb more info because their minds are more engaged.
Sometimes, multi-tasking just comes for you whether you want it to or not. Any parent of younger children knows that they may be juggling playtime or a diaper change with work and cooking. Is it ideal? No. Does it help knowing how to get through these tasks at the same time without burning down the house? Quite probably.
The Juggler: A helpful multitasking analogy
People casually talk about “juggling tasks” without realizing how accurately they’re describing multitasking.
Trained circus performers have no issues juggling. They can handle any number of balls (don’t laugh). This is because they’ve spent years practicing how to pass the balls between their hands (seriously, grow up) and can judge the amount of time the balls stay in the air. It seems effortless.
Enter the enthusiastic amateur. They want to be a juggler – the pros make it look so easy. But the amateur has no technique. They don’t know how long the balls are going to stay in the air. And no amount of enthusiasm or intelligence outside of juggling will stop them catching a cascade of balls to the face. (Really?)
When you multitask, every task is a ball. And if you don’t work out when to pass a task to one side, carry out a task, and monitor the other tasks you’re working on, you’re either going to drop all of the tasks or fall off the unicycle. (Where did the unicycle come from? Look, at least we’re not talking about balls anymore.)
A little juggling practice everyday can help you juggle more efficiently. Same with multitasking. Make it a tool in your arsenal, rather than the way you approach the world at all times.
Some people simply feel good after multitasking. If you manage to take a phone call while completing an essay or work assignment, you might feel like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. It can make you feel needed, capable, and powerful.
If that’s so, allow yourself times in the day to fully engage in multitasking and get it out of your system. Perhaps make your Netflix-watching time the moment you simultaneously use your phone and talk to other people in the room. Then, focus on attention-hungry or critical tasks in isolation and give them your full focus.
Group together tasks you can multitask, like cooking while talking to friends or listening to a podcast while you go on a run.
But remember to be kind to yourself. You can teach your brain more efficient mechanisms, but you only have so much control over how it processes information. Allow yourself to multitask sometimes – especially if you’re someone for whom it feels great – but don’t make it the only way you approach obligations.
How to stop multitasking and focus your attention
You are likely to be much more productive if you acknowledge that you’re multitasking, breathe for a second, and put one task to the side so you can turn proper attention to it later.
If you want to stop multitasking, here are a few measures you can take:
- Assess what you’re doing. Maybe you haven’t realised when you’re multitasking – you might be typing an email while talking to your partner out loud, for example. It seems trivial, but it’s still forcing your brain to switch tasks.
- Put off the distracting task. Is the email urgent or can you pause it for half a minute? Is your partner telling you the kitchen’s on fire, or can it wait? You’re going to be a better email responder and partner if you do one after the other. Usually, it doesn’t matter which. Just pick one.
- Be alert for multitasking moments throughout the day. A few bouts of being really busy and doing more than one thing simultaneously isn’t going to wreck your day. But a constant chain of moments that divide your attention is going to drain your soul. Be self-aware.
- Put. Down. Your. F*cking. Phone. You’re not only multitasking when you use the phone while doing something else, but you’re also multitasking within the phone itself, hopping between apps like a distracted rabbit. There is no greater drain on your attention.
- Note important tasks in your diary or phone calendar. Your diary can help you keep on top of everything you need to do that day. If you’re attending to something in the diary, that needs to be your sole focus – head down, phone off. Todoist is an app that may help.
Priority management is a must
Noting down obligations, meetings, and tasks in your phone calendar or diary can help you compartmentalize each one. Instead of doing them simultaneously, do one task at a time. Focus on it with all your attention. You’ll get to all of them eventually – it’s in your diary.
We multitask because we tend to give equal importance to everything. But the reality is that not everything is equally important or time-sensitive, and pretending otherwise increases stress, reduces the quality of your output, and makes you inefficient.
So organize your in-tray, inbox, to-do list, or wherever it is you track your upcoming tasks in the following:
- Urgent. This needs doing now. Maybe you risk losing a client or there’s a tech issue you need to fix that is costing the company millions every hour. These issues need your full attention – put everything else to the side.
- Important. This can wait until after lunch. If it’s not in your urgent pile, set aside a fixed time (an hour, maybe) to focus solely on your important task. If your urgent pile is empty, congratulations! Your important tasks have been promoted, and your urgent pile is now full again.
- Routine. Boooooooring. This is the weekly bread and butter – your weekly team meeting, the coffee runs, or your 1:1 assessment with your boss. You can’t really not attend to these responsibilities (especially the coffee runs). Your job still relies on them. But if your urgent and important tasks are overflowing, ask your boss if your routine tasks can be postponed.
Without priority management, constant multitasking can create false expectations that you’ll treat a task as urgent next time when it’s not. This is an age where finishing work on time is more or less a thing of the past, especially with the widespread introduction of home working.
If you don’t get your urgent obligations out of the way before attending to responsibilities that are more routine and can wait, your boss will expect you to multitask constantly. More expectations = more work = less headspace.
This even applies socially. Think about your last message from a friend. Sure, responding to WhatsApp messages immediately is courteous and friendly. But next time they message you and you’re in the middle of something, they’re expecting another immediate response.
If you don’t respond, they may either think you’re ignoring them or they’ll worry that something’s happened to you – all because you didn’t just finish what you were doing before messaging them last time.
It’s important to be present in your life. You will simply have to multitask sometimes, and being able to switch between tasks quickly can be an important skill that will have your back during stressful times.
But other people’s demands can become overwhelming if you let them. You can prevent multitasking from dominating your life by putting aside distractions when you need to and disconnecting from your phone.
You should only multitask when it feels empowering. Which is why you should stop reading this article, put down the phone you’ve been looking at this entire time, and give yourself some headspace.
Andrade, J. (2009). What does doodling do? https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.1561
Cherry, K. (2020). How multitasking affects productivity and brain health. https://www.verywellmind.com/multitasking-2795003
Horrey, W. J., et al. (2006). Examining the impact of cell phone conversations on driving using meta-analytic techniques. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1518/001872006776412135
Naiper, N. K. (2014). The myth of multitasking. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking
The science behind why multitasking is a bad idea. (n.d.). https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/the-science-of-multitasking-and-why-you-should-doodle-in-class