Texting while reading, studying with the TV on, eating in front of the computer…sound familiar? Intentionally focusing attention on only one task at a time may seem inefficient, if not impossible. It can feel as though you have no choice, particularly when juggling school or work with the rest of life. But is multitasking really helping you accomplish what you need to get done?
Before I answer this question, let’s make a couple things clear:
First, I should define what multitasking really is: performing two or more tasks that require some degree of attention at the same time, or rapidly switching from attention-demanding tasks in succession. Starting a load of laundry while the pasta boils on the stove or walking while chewing gum are not quite the same as carrying on a conversation via text while driving, or answering emails while editing a paper.
Second, we are all guilty of it. In fact, we live in a society of chronic multitaskers, and the ever-present tug of digital distractions has only exacerbated the problem.
Though multitasking may be pervasive in our culture, recent research has found that it consistently results in the same thing: shoddy work. If we study while intermittently checking work email, for example, we retain less of the information we are studying and fail to process or understand it at a deep level. Our productivity is reduced as well, as we take longer to finish each of the tasks that we juggle. Intuitively, it makes sense that we may not perform as well while taking on too many tasks at once, but to what extent?
1. It Changes How You Learn
Learning and memory are pretty sensitive to the conditions in which information is consumed. Giving material your full attention as you read and study involves unique structures of the brain, primarily the hippocampus. This small and vaguely seahorse-shaped part of the brain allows us to learn facts and information, to be retrieved at a later date and under a variety of circumstances or test conditions, providing cognitive flexibility, or the ability to restructure knowledge and apply it in new ways. However, researchers at UCLA found that people learning a new task while distracted use a different part of the brain, the striatum, which is typically used in learning new skills, but does not provide cognitive flexibility. Thus, learning without distractions means you’ll benefit more from what you learn.
2. It Can Make You Forgetful
Other research has found that multitasking can also affect working memory. This cognitive function allows us to keep information temporarily in our mind. For example, remembering a phone number long enough to enter it into your list of contacts or walking into a room but forgetting what you needed to do both involve working memory. Working memory is highly influenced by attention, and thus very sensitive to multitasking.
3. It Impacts Productivity
Juggling various tasks slows us down, regardless if we do them consecutively or take a small break in between. Evidence suggests that switching tasks requires rule activation, or mentally switching gears to perform one type of task instead of another. For example, if you switched from working on math problems to writing a literary essay, you would need to follow different types of “rules” for both tasks. Multitasking tends to slow each activity, especially more complex tasks. Some researchers have even suggested that productivity falls by up to 40% when we try to multitask.
4. Chronic Multitaskers Perform the Worst
We are terrible judges of how good we are at performing multiple tasks at once: chronic multitaskers who feel confident in their ability actually perform much worse on many measures of cognitive performance. Multitasking results in a decreased ability to filter out irrelevant information, particularly for media multitasking—taking in multiple streams of digital information, like writing emails while texting. Chronic multitaskers display significant deficits on cognitive tests for speed, accuracy, learning, and the ability to focus on important information. The brain is highly adaptable, but when asked to juggle multiple tasks for an extended period of the time, the ability to focus on only one thing at a time weakens.
To quote a friend of mine, “Multitasking makes you stupid.” But in this day and age, what alternatives do you have?
What to do instead
The first step is to acknowledge that you have an unhelpful multitasking habit. Know that you are certainly not alone—25% of Stanford students report using four or more different types of media at a time, like social media, texting, and listening to music all while writing a paper. But just because multitasking is common doesn’t mean it’s the best approach to getting work done. Here are some ways that you can start to break the habit:
- Practice focusing your attention on one thing at a time for around 20 minutes. This allows you to engage with the activity at a deeper level. A very helpful tool is the Pomodoro Method for structuring your time, where you spend 25 minutes on a single task or activity, followed by a five-minute break. Repeat this 30-minute cycle four times, and then take a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes. This method also includes built-in breaks, which are necessary for sustaining your attention effectively without burning out.
- Read through and answer email at dedicated times. Pop-up email alerts can be a constant source of distraction. You will find it significantly easier to concentrate productively if you only check your email once every 20 or 30 minutes, giving yourself that time of uninterrupted focus.
- Remember that multitasking with different forms of media about completely unrelated topics is especially harmful to your ability to focus. While watching videos, reading articles, and listening to podcasts on one specific topic can be helpful, watching cat videos while answering emails and skimming class notes will get you nowhere. Fight the distractions!
Read more tips on staying focused while studying, and share your own in the comments below!