#181 5 Things Multitasking Does to Your Brain

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5 Things Multitasking Does To Your Brain

I had no idea what multitasking does to your brain until I did the unimaginable…I accidently dropped my iPhone into the toilet last weekend.

It was literally a race against time to prevent irreversible water damage.  I quickly fished my iPhone out of the toilet with my hand, powered it off, dried every aspect of the phone, and waited for the inner components to dry.

Life without Multitasking

For an entire weekend I was without my iPhone.  I had to wait for everything to dry.  If I was even tempted to turn it on, the inner electronics would likely be forever destroyed.

Once I got beyond the initial frustration of dropping my iPhone into the toilet, I started tuning in more to my family.  No one could call or text me.  Nor was I be tempted to check email or something on the Internet while I was with my children.  For an entire weekend, I didn’t multitask.

It was kind of nice.  Sort of like a vacation.

Without my smartphone gone, I stopped multitasking.  I was even less stressed.  My thinking was clearer and I was more tuned in to the real world around me.

The 5 Things Multitasking Does to Your Brain

This iPhone experience caused me to reflect what multitasking does to your brain.  Based on my review of the latest scientific research, here are the 5 things multitasking does to your brain.

1. Your Brain Works More Slowly

While most people are convinced that multitasking speeds things up, studies clearly show that multitasking actually slows cognitive performance.  Even when researchers study those who are recognized as excellent multitaskers, the brain still slows down.

Why is this the case?  When you are multitasking your brain is constantly shifting from one mental task to another.  Each time this occurs it takes time for the brain to reset and focus on a new task.

2. Your Memory Isn’t as Sharp

If slower cognitive function wasn’t bad enough, studies also show that multitasking makes it harder to retain new information.  In other words, the more you multitask, the less you will remember.

This is something you have probably experienced.  For example, how well do you remember the conversation you recently had while you were texting on your phone, surfing the web, or watching TV?

3. You Are Easily Distracted

This should come as no surprise.  Studies show that multitaskers are easily distracted.

According to these studies, not only are multitaskers easily distracted but they also have difficulties determining the key point of what they are doing.  Indeed, one common theory is that the reason why people multitask in the first place is because they simply can’t focus on what they really should be doing.

4. You Are Unhappy

One would naturally assume that the more options you have available, like texting while watching TV, the happier you would be.  Surprisingly, researchers have shown that the more options you have the unhappier you are.

This is what Dr. David Schwartz has described as the Tyranny of Choice.  This theory may help to explain why depression is far more common today than a generation or two ago.

5. Your Brain is Damaged

Finally, multitasking changes your brain.  While research in this area is still new, early studies show that multitasking may damage the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC.

The ACC is responsible for signal processing and emotions within the brain.  While many have suspected that media multitaskers have blunted social and emotional skills, recent research now shows that the gray matter in the ACC is actually smaller.

Is multitasking ever beneficial?

Can multitasking ever be beneficial?  According to medical studies, multitasking is possible when one or more of the tasks have become automatic.

This is why you can listen to a podcast while working out.   Of course, if you try to listen to that same podcast while talking on the phone, you probably won’t get much out of either activity.

Perhaps one reason why multitaskers are convinced multitasking works is that they have become so good at doing something that it becomes automatic for them.  Thus, their brain is then free to take on another activity at the same time.

Indeed, studies show that with task training (doing the same thing over and over), people can learn to multitask.  Now, whether or not this is a good thing, I’ll let you decide.

My iPhone

For better or worse, my iPhone survived the toilet.  When I powered it on at the end of the weekend, everything worked normally.

With my iPhone back, I was free to multitask again.  Fortunately, I learned something from this experience.

While I am still not perfect, I have taken measures to minimize multitasking.  For example, all notifications, except for the ring of an incoming phone call, are turned off.

I have also configured my iPhone so that it takes multiple clicks to access emails, text messages, or the Internet.  While this may not seem like much, this extra “hassle factor,” helps me to stop checking my phone so often.

The Challenge

As smartphones are the main way people multitask, try doing the following four things for one week.  Let me know how this experiment worked for you.

1. Track the number of times you turn on your phone in a day.

If you are like most people, it is probably 100 or more times a day.  There is even a free app that will monitor this number for you.

2. Determine what apps you “need” to check.

What are you checking when you unlock your phone?  Is it a text message or the latest Facebook or Instagram post?

3. Make it hard to get to the apps you frequently check.

If the Facebook app is your drug of choice, try moving the app to a folder inside of a folder.  Just a few extra clicks may be all you need to stop checking Facebook all the time.

4. Turn off notifications.

Other than an emergency, do you really need to be constantly disrupted when you are with your family or friends?  There is a simple solution.

Turn of notifications.  You really don’t need this added stress in your life.

For me, having a bubble on my home screen telling me how many unopened emails and text messages was too much stress.  Likewise, always having my phone vibrate was causing me phantom notifications.

Take Home Message

The take home message of this article is to become aware of what multitasking does to your brain.  Your “harmless” multitasking may actually be damaging your brain and your relationships.

As your brain can only focus on one task at a time, save multitasking for your daily workout.  You really don’t need to be constantly interrupted.

Do you have a love hate relationship with multitasking?  How do find balance?  Please leave your thoughts and questions below.

If you like what you have read, please be sure to tell a friend and subscribe to my free weekly newsletter and podcast.

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4 Comments
  1. This article is so true for people who text on their phones while driving. Multitasking is a serious problem with those who text while doing other things.
    I myself never look at my phone while driving, but I see so many that do, and that is unfortunate.

  2. Was the Dr. Schwartz that you mentioned the author of “Paradox of Choice” ? Since I heard a conversation on PBS this summer about that book, I have certainly pondered the negative aspects of too many choices, although many people would disagree. It certainly ties in with too much multi-tasking, and doing much of it to a sub-standard level.

    • Hi Michaela,

      Yes, it is the same person. His writings are very fascinating and thought provoking.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!!

      John