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If Multi-tasking is not a good thing, why do we do it?

Posted on 15-9-2015 by Fiona Cosgrove


Things have shifted in the world and the idea of multi-tasking being a positive, admirable way of working has changed as we learn that perhaps it may not be the best way of being productive?

The evidence for this is clear. Whereas we think we’re doing several things at once we are actually just switching from one task to another very quickly.  And every time we do this, there is a cognitive cost!    

Multi-tasking increases our production of cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline and both can cause fogginess and lack of clarity in thinking.

A wonderful description of multi-tasking, by Daniel Levitin in his book “The Organised Mind”, is ,“(Multi-tasking is ….like a bad amateur plate-spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of (him) but worried it will come crashing down at any minute!”  We become less efficient and less effective.

So why do we do it? Well, this is where it becomes interesting.  You see, our brains have a novelty bias so that every time we receive new stimulation, we get a shot of dopamine and if there is a choice to be made, our pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain that we need to focus with ironically) leans towards the new distraction! Which is why we are so often tempted to move from one thing to another!

And of course society encourages this… with all our technology and constant attachment to our devices we are expected to be available at all times.. and there are so many things to distract us!  Email coming in, Facebook to check, the multitude of tasks that await us that sometimes we feel we can just keep an eye on everything at once, or just take a peep at that email while we’re on the phone. 

The result? A somewhat absent person.  

Here’s another interesting point. If we multi-task while trying to study (or learn something new), the information will go to the wrong part of the brain, not the hippocampus where it is organised and able to be retrieved.  

We burn through glucose much quicker when we multi-task, causing us to be exhausted after a short time as the nutrients in our brain are depleted.

And finally, if you’re not convinced, multi-tasking involves making many decisions, and they have found that making even small decisions is hard on your neural resources  - we quickly lose impulse control – making numerous small decisions which may lead to potentially bad important decisions.

Convinced?  I am.

About the Author - Fiona Cosgrove

Fiona Cosgrove’s 25 years experience as a business owner, a trainer, lecturer, coach and presenter, positions her well to identify and employ the strengths of your staff making your business a pleasure to work in and deal with. 

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