Media Multitasking Is Hurting Your Productivity

You just started drafting a report for your boss when you remember that email you never finished replying to. Once you press send, your phone lights up with a new Instagram like, and you remember that you missed your friend's birthday...again. By the time you get back to that report, you're an hour behind without much to show for it. Sound familiar? Multitasking may seem like the way to get more done, but according to research, that's just not how our brains operate.

This is an image of a human brain. The thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) surrounds the thalamus (pictured in red, with a switchboard in the background).

The Multitasking Myth

If you think you've mastered the art of multitasking, think again. Your brain simply isn't optimized for split attention.

  • When you're distracted, it takes longer for your brain to get back on track. One study found that answering an email in the middle of a computer task put people an average of 20–25 minutes behind, even though the email itself only took 10 minutes. A third of the volunteers took more than two hours to get back on task, blaming "loss of context associated with the task switch" — the distraction took their minds somewhere else.
  • Practice won't make you a better multitasker, either. In a 2009 Stanford study, students deemed "heavy media multitaskers" were more easily distracted than those who didn't multitask as much, and struggled with focus, attention, and remembering information. Evidence shows that even young "digital natives" are suffering from the distractions of their chronic multitasking.

According to an NYU study, the part of the brain most responsible for focus is the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN). It acts as a sort of switchboard for incoming sensory signals, and tells the decision-making region (the prefrontal cortex) which ones to pay attention to. It does that by suppressing the neurons for some senses and activating the neurons for others. But when it's overloaded, it makes mistakes.

That study found that mice exposed to several stimuli were significantly less successful in getting a food reward than those who just focused on one stimulus, even though the focus engines of the multitasking mice were firing on all cylinders. You may think you're fully focused on multiple things at once, but your performance is suffering.

Focus In On Focusing

But not all is lost. As University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley told NPR, there are easy ways to maintain your focus and knock that project out of the park. Start by clearing your workspace of distractions. That means keeping it uncluttered by papers and mobile devices, and using just one computer screen to navigate a single tab on a single browser. Turn off your email notifications, and let relevant people know you're going offline for a while. Then get to work!

Here's Why You Can't Multitask

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Multi-tasking is an illusion; you're actually just very quickly switching between two ideas. 00:16

  2. Your EQ is your emotional intelligence. 02:47

  3. Women perform multi-tasking better than men do, but only in certain situations. 03:52

Your Brain Craves More Information Than You Can Handle

Can Your Eyes Multitask?

Written by Curiosity Staff November 1, 2016

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