Stop multitasking. It's a brain, not an octopus

Multitasking seems like a job requirement today. Except, a study shows it's doing little, if at all, in getting the job done faster or better.

Kamala Thiagarajan February 10, 2012 17:59:24 IST
Stop multitasking. It's a brain, not an octopus

by Kamala Thiagarajan

Nothing could have brought home the dangers of multitasking more than when Saranya,* a Mumbai based chartered accountant and mother of two boys, nearly lost her three-year-old on a crowded commuter train.

"I had an important presentation at the office due in a week’s time and had to co-ordinate with a colleague to prepare some urgent paperwork for the next day. I had my laptop open with my cell phone glued to my ear while also trying to keep my eye on Shravan, whom I had just picked up from his grandma's," she recalls. "I was trying to multitask, but it wasn’t working well."

She couldn’t read the notes she prepared for her presentation; she made mistakes in the figures she exchanged with the colleague; worst of all, she didn't notice when Shravan wandered away with a group of children and was about to get down at the wrong station. Call it providence or a mother's instinct, but moments before the train left, Saranya caught sight of her little boy trying to clamber down onto the platform. "My heart was in my mouth as I fought my way through the crowds to pick him up. After that, I resolved never to multitask because it was only driving me to distraction."

Multitasking has become so much a part of our daily lives that we hardly notice it anymore. "Today, this is considered an essential survival skill," says Rohini Pankaj, 36, an advertising professional. "Who isn’t tempted to read their email while answering a phone call or text a message while watching television or work on several files and spread sheets at once? Multitasking really can't be helped in a world that is getting increasingly competitive and when there’s always a time crunch.”

Stop multitasking Its a brain not an octopus

Fear and insecurity are the two key reasons why this generation may be multitasking more. stoneysteiner/ via Flickr

But when you perform two or more activities simultaneously, how good is your ability to focus? Are you really doing justice to it all? According to a 2009 study by Stanford researchers, those who multitask eventually must pay a mental price. Heavy multitaskers were constantly taxing their minds by forcing themselves to shift abruptly between one activity and the next. This caused significant cognitive impairment, creating some degree of confusion and displacement, the study found. Chronic multitaskers were mentally slower with lower levels of concentration than those who focussed on one activity at a time. In the long term, chronic multitaskers were found to be more forgetful. They might search all over the house for spectacles that are perched firmly on their heads, not remember where they put their cell phones, even have trouble recalling names, faces and important dates and engagements.

“Do not multitask frequently. If you do, you will hurt your thinking, even when you are not multitasking,” advises Professor Dr Clifford I Nass, one of the researchers of the Stanford study in an exclusive interview. "Realise that doing two things at a time 'always' results in taking longer than doing one thing and then the other. Multitasking is 'always' ineffective".

Nass suggests the 20-minute rule. "If you start to do something, even if it is checking your email, stick with it for a minimum of 20 minutes. That will protect your thinking processes," he says.

"The reason we multitask is because we have so much to do that we are overwhelmed," says Brinda Jayaraman, counsellor, family therapist and Director of ASHA (Anchor Self Help Access), based in Chennai. "This is a great source of stress, as you flit between tasks and yet find everything incomplete. It can only leave you feeling irritated and upset."

Fear and insecurity are the two key reasons why this generation may be multitasking more. "There are a million people out there with similar skills," says Swati Ram, 43, a secretary for a corporate house. "If I need to stand out, then I need to go beyond my work profile, do more than my clerical jobs."

But when an avalanche of different jobs is so much a part of your daily workload, how do you keep yourself efficient and organised? "In Sanskrit, the word ‘ashtavadhani’ refers to someone who does 8 jobs at one time with ease,” says Jayaraman. "In the past, people have trained themselves to multitask efficiently, but today, we know that not only does it cause severe stress and impede productivity, but it affects our mind. In order to avoid this, you'll need to ensure that whatever you're taking on at that moment, you can perform comfortably without having to resort to multitasking to get it done. Often, we don't know the art of saying 'no' nicely. Eager to please, we pile on chores until we have too much on our plates.”

It is indeed a vicious cycle: We're unwilling to tell our bosses how overworked we really are, and helplessly, we take on more responsibilities that encroach on our personal lives. We hate to refuse help to a friend, so we try to fit into everyone's needs. We don't explain to our children why we can't play with them at that moment and "play" while answering emails on our phones. Most people multitask out of sheer guilt, necessity and the inability to say no.

"It helps to be aware of the times of day that you tend to multitask more," says Cherine Thomas, Bangalore-based psychologist and counsellor.

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"Many working mothers feel guilty over not being able to spend enough time with their kids. They resort to multitasking just to be able to spend time with them, but this often backfires since children sense that they are tense and distracted. It doesn't help the bonding in any way.

"Gym-goers on the other hand are guilty about spending so much leisure time away from their offices. It's not uncommon to see people talking on their cell phones while on the treadmill. When your full attention isn't focussed on your exercise (or any activity you do), there is always the danger of it resulting in injury," says Thomas.

Any multitasking, even trying to perform two tasks simultaneously, experts say, is harmful in the long term. Rene’ Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbuilt University, recently published a study on a multitasker’s response to stimuli. Out of all the subjects who were asked to perform a basic number of image and sound recognition tests, those who multitasked often had delayed response times. It was only a slight delay of one to few seconds, but would you want your doctor or surgeon to have delayed response? Or would you want to drive a car when your own reflexes are slow, even for a split second?

So the next time you are thinking of imitating an octopus, remember, leave the multitasking to your computer!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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