Multitasking, health and performance

Once heralded as the height of efficiency, Anne McCracken breaks down the new thinking surrounding the dangers of multitasking.

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A study at the University of London (2005) found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks, experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night!

I have always been proud of my ability to multitask, believing it is a skill to be applauded as it improved my productivity.
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.

New research, new thinking?

This week, I have had my belief seriously challenged by new research, published in 2014 from Sussex University using MRI scanning.  The scientists looked at the brain structures of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media. They found that, independent of individual personality traits, people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.  This suggests that both CI (Cognitive Intelligence) and EI (Emotional Intelligence) could be affected.

This neuroscience research agreed with research from Stanford University in 2006 which went on to explore the possibility that ‘heavy’ multitaskers (those who feel it improves their performance) were actually worse at multitasking, than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.

The multitasking effect

It seems that multitasking reduces our efficiency and performance because our brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

A study at the University of London (2005) found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks, experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night! IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking individuals, lowered their scores to the average range of an eight year old child.

Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist, has been offering therapies to combat extreme multitasking for years. He describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In 2005, he described a new condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” which he claims is rampant in the business world. ADT is “purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,” writes Hallowell, and its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” Hallowell acomments, and this challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.”

He believes that limiting multitasking is essential for cognitive and emotional wellbeing. 

So the next time you are tempted to mail your boss during a meeting – remember you are reducing your cognitive ability to that of an eight year old child!

About Ann McCracken

Ann McCracken is a Director of AMC2 and the vice president of the International Management Association (ISMA UK) – the professional body for stress management Practitioners.

She specialises in developing a positive and resilient working culture in organisations by introducing effective strategies in performance and wellbeing at all levels. The effectiveness of such a positive working culture is measured and assessed using AMC2 Corporate Diagnostic innovative surveys which include measurement of psychosocial factors, stress and wellbeing. Having initially trained as a scientist, she carried out research with DEFRA and consultancy in the NHS.

She spent 10 years in Education before retraining as a stress management practitioner in 1996. She is the author of Stress Gremlins©, regularly writes/broadcasts and is an external lecturer at Westminster University. She is also a Key Note/Motivational speaker/Conference Chair.

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