Friday, March 1, 2013

A Word or Two on Multitasking

I was born a multitasker and I will die a multitasker.  If ever there was a constant in my life it is that I have always had far too many balls in the air.  At times, I even deluded myself into thinking this was one of my finest qualities – the ability to handle many demands, situations and tasks at once.

A short time ago, I read an article about the underbelly of multitasking – especially as it pertains to the aging brain.  When you rob your brain of fully and completely focusing on one particular thing for a period of time, your ability to store short term memory suffers.

After letting out an audible gasp, it dawned on me that for the past few years I thought I was just not as capable and efficient as I used to be – forever busy but not really getting anything done.  The article was frighteningly “spot on.”  I have robbed myself of the ability to concentrate and focus – the two things that are necessary for memory.  When you are a fifty-two year old, that is a big deal!  I need to be kinder and gentler to my mind.  This must be a priority and quick!  Due to the amount of information currently available and the access to a variety of media, I assume that overburdening our ability to concentrate will become more and more of a problem for everyone and not just the middle aged.

An article published on Buffer titled, What Multitasking Does to Our Brains, written by Leo Widrich, shows that research proves multitasking is not only bad for our brains, but is not the effective tool we always thought it to be.  What’s more is that Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford found that people who multitask a lot, are in fact, worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between tasks, compared to singletaskers.

“Do two or more things simultaneously, and you’ll do none at full capacity,” writes Brandon Keim in an article printed in Nova science NOW entitled Is Multitasking Bad for Us?  Keim also refers to the Nass study which stated the results nothing less than “a damning indictment” of multitasking’s effects, summarizing the multitaskers’ condition as, “They look where they shouldn’t, and their memory is all sloppy.”  In a subsequent study, Nass also found that high multitaskers have more social problems than low-multitasking peers, perhaps because they have trouble paying attention to people.

Another article asserting the dangers of multitasking entitled Multitasking and Stress by Chris Woolston, M.S. suggests that multitasking can indeed interfere with short-term memory.  Woolston quotes David Meyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan “Anytime you’re trying to multitask, you have less attention available to store memories.”  Short-term memory loss isn’t always a short term problem.  The flood of adrenaline and other stress hormones unleashed by trying to do too much at once can actually cause permanent damage to the brain cells that store memories.  Meyer says.  After years of multitasking, a person might eventually have trouble doing just one thing at a time.

There you go:  I now have a scientific explanation for my inefficiency and lack of productivity.  I am not going crazy, just senile – not really a comforting realization.  Let’s be honest, we can’t stand by the dryer and wait for the clothes to dry before taking on another task, but we can set limits for ourselves on what we allow ourselves to do simultaneously. If we want to develop memory and focus we must devote time and energy to the habit of focusing on one thing at a time.  It is within our power to intentionally control situations every day where we can discipline ourselves to focus on things individually and give them the concentration and focus that they deserve.

Interestingly enough, there is one caveat to all of this.  Music does not seem to break our ability to concentrate and focus.  Nass stress that “In the case of music, it’s a little different.  We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.”  All is not lost…

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