How Multitasking affects your Cognitive Performance

Many of us think of ourselves as multitaskers. Well, the science is in, and it’s not good. Let’s go over why you should only ever focus on one task at a time and our tips to keep you on track!

The harsh truth is, multitasking is a myth. When you think you’re completing two tasks at once, all that is happening in the brain rapidly switching between two tasks. The problem is that when we rapidly switch between two or more tasks, we drastically reduce our learning speed and efficiency.

How Multitasking Affects the Brain

There a no shortages of downsides to multi-tasking. It affects almost every aspect of your cognitive performance. Here are some of the negative aspects you might experience.

1. Negative Impact On Short Term Memory

Back in 2011, the University of California, San Francisco published a study showing that quickly switching between tasks negatively impacts short term memory. Short term and working memory are important when learning new information or skills.

2. Increased Anxiety

The University of California, Irvine in one study, found that constant interruptions in work caused individuals to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. Anxiety puts our body in survival mode. In this mode, we’re constantly on the lookout for danger. Our brain immediately diverts mental resources away from non-essential functions to keep us safe.

So to keep your creative mental juices flowing, keep multitasking and other stresses to a minimum!

3. Decreased Brain Mapping Efficiency

Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich discovered in his experiment the brain’s ability to learn is significantly hindered when multi-tasking. He discovered that when multitasking during learning, newly created brain maps disappear quickly. However, when focused on a singular learning task, they become more permanently embedded in our minds.

4. More Mistakes

A study commissioned by the technology company Hewlett Packard found that workers who regularly stop work to check emails or go on their phones performed significantly worse at work. Starting and stopping work regularly represented a massive 10 IQ point drop. This means your tasks take longer to complete and you’re more likely to make mistakes. This IQ drop is the equivalent of missing an entire night of sleep!

5. Prevents Flow

Flow is a mental state where an individual becomes completely involved in a task, loses a sense of time, and can perform at a much higher level than normal. You may have experienced this from time to time. It is an important part of the intense learning process. Multitasking prevents us from entering a state of flow.

How to Stop Multitasking and Stay on Task

So, now we know that multitasking is negatively affecting our mental performance and learning. The question is now, how can we stay on task to optimize our brains? Here are our five useful tips that you can implement quickly!

1. Get Small Tasks Done First

If you have any small tasks that need doing, get them out of the way first. Put any larger tasks on a to-do list. The task at hand should have your full attention.

2. Remove Distractions

This one might seem obvious, however its worth reinforcing. Close all those unnecessary tabs and put your phone on silent; anything you need to do to work distraction free!

If you find yourself unknowingly opening social media or other sites out of habit, try out the Chrome Website Blocker or equivalent addon for the browser you use.

3. Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique involves working in short bursts using a timer. These are usually 2-minute windows. This way, you can stay focused during your work bursts and not feel so bad during your breaks!

4. Get Better Sleep

Surveys show that only 21% of Americans get the recommended seven to eight hours sleep each night”. When we’re sleep deprived, all our brain is concerned with is how you can go get some rest. Not only this but our cognitive performance is heavily impacted.

If you want to learn more about the importance of sleep, check out Why We Sleep by Matt Walker. If you’re short on time, you can also see his Sleep is your superpower TED Talk.

5. Manage Your Downtime

If you’re familiar with how the brain’s focus and diffuse mode works, or checked out our Ping Pong Learning Technique explanation, then you’ll know how important your rest and downtime is.

All of the information you intake and process is at some point background-processed inside your brain. This background processed information can ‘pop up’ from time to time during the day into your conscious thoughts. Think of when you randomly solve a problem or come up with an idea when you’re doing the dishes or taking a bath.

If you’re struggling to stay on task and keep focused, it might be because you are absorbing a lot of information from social media, television, and other sources. Try to keep your downtime entertainment to as few sources as possible. This will clear a lot of the clutter inside your head.

Want to improve your learning even more, then why not check out our Memory Palace Guide!