What Multitasking Does To Your Brain

Having 20 tabs open on your laptop while Snapchatting with your best friend, eating a sandwich, and listening to Taylor Swift is overwhelming. And makes you mean.

In case we needed another reason to close the 15 extra browser tabs we have open, Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford, has provided major motivation for monotasking: according to his research, the more you multitask, the less you're able to learn, concentrate, or be nice to people.

For a case study, turn to your nearest broadcast news station (and don't say Fast Company didn't warn you): if the talking head on the screen is accompanied by a "crawler" at the bottom blurbing baseball scores and the day's tragedies, you'll be less likely to remember whatever the pundit is saying. Why? Because, research shows that the more you're multitasking, the less you're able to filter out irrelevant information.

As Nass told NPR, if you think you're good at multitasking, you aren't:

. . . We have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.

They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And . . . they're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks.

Multitasking rewires our brains.

When we multitask all day, those scattered habits literally change the pathways in our brains. The consequence, according to Nass's research, is that sustaining your attention becomes impossible.

"If we [multitask] all the time—brains are remarkably plastic, remarkably adaptable," he says, referencing neuroplasticity, the way the structures of your brain literally re-form to the patterns of your thought. "We train our brains to a new way of thinking. And then when we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they're not elastic. They don't just snap back into shape."

How it affects our work

As James O'Toole notes on the strategy+business blog, the dangers of multitasking are as multifarious as they are nefarious.

Multitasking stunts emotional intelligence: Instead of addressing the person in front of you, you address a text message.

Multitasking makes us worse managers: The more we multitask, the worse we are at sorting through information—recall the broadcast news kerfuffle above.

Multitasking makes us less creative: Since attention is the midwife of creativity, if you can't focus, that thought-baby isn't coming out.

Hat tip: strategy+business

[Image: Flickr user Marc Eliot]

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22 Comments

  • It has been sad long time ago - that in fact human brain is NOT multitasking at all. All brain can do is to switch between tasks very fast. Also - constant switching tabs in your browser, constant refreshing pages (especially Facebook and mail) - which is sort of human multitasking activity - is a symptom of depression. Anyway, the article is right. Now I know why my memory is not working well...

  • PersonthatExist

    hold on let me read this while chatting XD just kidding but this explains a lot for my friend.......

  • Steven Collins

    I read the book "Eat that Frog" by Brian Tracy some time ago and occasionally have to often remind myself of the principle as I believe I tend to "backslide" into multitasking. This link sums the book up in a short video. It may help just a bit to answer the problem: http://play.simpletruths.com/m... The posted article is a great reminder - thank you.

  • MrsPink1

    I totally agree with this article. with so much downsizing in our company and having to absorb so many other duties; it has become increasing difficult to concentrate on one task.

  • Stephenn

    Multitasking in itself may not be the problem.... people such as pilots.... and the purpose of some coded computer programmes function well (it is a neccessity) to manage multiple tasks.
    I would suggest it would be worth considering.... the ability to place the "prioritise" evaluation in the mix... then loop the evaluation... dealing with the tasks.

    If too many tasks are seen to keep being 'put-off'... then you now know you are overloaded... and that is a 'limit' issue.

  • Alix

    Great post, thank you. And so funny to, while reading it, find my attention slide off to the pictures and headings on the right hand side of this page... How appropriately laid out...

    For those of you who are looking for a book or a way to get the mind back into creative, efficient, and kind mono-tasking: mindfulness get you there! I received this post through one of my colleague mindfulness trainers of The Potential Project (they specialize in bringing mindfulness into the workplace). Good luck!

  • CX

    After reading this article, I wonder what impact videogames -and specifically RTS (real-time strategy) games- have on our brains, since while playing them you are meant to deal with multiple variables at the same time. The widespread thought that these sort of games are good to improve mind capabilities may not be wise, then...

  • HS

    This is a huge eye opener....it is no surprise that I have read this email and now commented as I was only suppose to be checking emails quickly before I attempt a task that needed immediate attention...BUT...once again the multitasking bug has won....and I will now get to my first task.......How do we reverse this multitasking bug slowly...Is there a book or guide to simple steps, I am sure it is not a cold turkey approach as the brain needs to be re wired!!!!!!!!:)

  • Deane Alban

    It turns out that we don't actually multitask - our brains toggle back and forth between tasks. An area of your brain called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) acts as a hub for routing new stimulus. If it gets too much information to process at one time, it will line these stimuli up in a queue, rather than trying to handle them simultaneously. 

  • HE3

    But I think we should not confuse this with how, for example, project managers run projects: by managing tasks concurrently.

    It's ok to get a task going (by giving it your undivided attention), so that it's moving forward while you take your attention off of it and put it (again in a dedicated fashion) on another task that can be moved forward and/or completed.

    Then, later, you come back to putting your attention on the first task you got started and move it to the next stage or complete it, etc.

    This whole thing is about Attention and how you can't spread it thin and expect to get anything out of it.

    "Multitasking" as described here is like having several wives talking at the same time. If you try to listen to them all at once, you're going to get a lot of pots and pans thrown at you because you're probably not going to hear what any of them said in the end.

    But if you could line them up, interview style, you could pull it off, giving each one their due attention.

    Maybe that's how Mormon husbands handle that particular problem. lol

  • JW

    Managing tasks and performing tasks are two completely different things and your analogy of a project manager "multitasking" by managing tasks performed by others falls quite short of being analogous to you as an individual reading email, listening to music and carrying on a conversation with your boss concurrently.  That is true multitasking.

    How old are you?  Mormon husbands haven't had more than one wife in over 123 years.  Those that wish to are never married within that church.  If they attempt to marry more than one wife, they are excommunicated.  You're not to blame of course...there is quite a bit of ignorance about the Mormon church and it's members, perpetuated continually by those who hold contempt for the same.

  • HE3

    I think you're taking my comments a bit too literally but thanks for your reply.

  • David J

    After years of multitasking. I am 100% in agreement with this article. The challenge ahead is how to re-teach the brain to be more focused on individual items.

  • Author C. Nzingha Smith

    Thanks so much for this post! I now know the culprit that's been stealing my precious creativity. I'm officially divorcing my multi-tasking lifestyle and going old-school again (one task at a time)...this is going to take some re-getting used to though since there's no such thing as snapping my brain back. 

  • Tracey Browning

    Drake, I like the information you share- our brains are fascinating. I became a proponent of NOT multitasking when I realized how much I truly stunk at it. And I gotta show some love for your use of "kerfuffle". 

  • Javierxaneai

    I see myself in what is said in the text. I want to control it, but...

  • Yippy Skippy

    I feel a need to have many things happening all the time, and yes it is that randomness that gets in the way.  I have tried to construct a better managed framework to live in, Oh!  Look.  A chicken!

  • HE3

    Put down the other tasks. Make a list of the top three things you have to do today, turn off all other reminders and interruptions and go do the first one. Then check things like v.m. and texts.  Then take next task on with all the distractions turned off.

    In short, it's easier than you may think. The first step is deciding to be the point of causality instead of the receiving end of all those things which are reminding you to give them attention. 

    In other words, decide first that you're the boss of the distractions, then turn them off long enough to get the first task done.