One College Student’s Take On Multitasking: Helpful or Harmful?

Talking on the phone while walking, checking Facebook while doing work, sending an e-mail while chatting on AIM/and or Google Chat, keeping multiple tabs open on your internet browser – sound familiar?

It’s something we do on a daily basis, and it’s something that you’re probably doing right now as you read this.  Multitasking has become second-nature to most, if not all, of us.  And when we multitask, we do it with the notion that we’ll be able to plow through the tasks on our infinite to-do list more efficiently and effectively.  Sadly, studies show that the effects of multitasking are quite the opposite.

Brain Overload

Studies tells us that the human brain is incapable of managing two tasks simultaneously– tasks as simple as chewing gum while talking.  When we take on two things at once, our brain is overwhelmed and overstimulated from having to switch its main focus back-and-forth.  As a result, the tasks take longer time (usually double or more) to complete and are predisposed to error than if they were done sequentially.  Meyer and David Kieras’ study found that this happens because our brains, “restart and refocus,” each time our brain is given a different task.

Email And Phone Calls: Worse Than Drugs?
If you’re the type to immediately respond to a text, e-mail, phone call, then your IQ is more under siege than someone who smokes. The Institute of Psychiatry carried out a study that found people who are distracted by incoming email and phone calls see a 10-point reduction in their IQ, and the mind suffers similar consequences to that of losing a night’s sleep.

Multitask PMS
On top of wasting time, tasks being at a higher risk for errors, losing 10 IQ points, and being tired – multitasking can also make us PMS.  A study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that negative effects of multitasking also come in the physical form, as it prompts the release of hormones and adrenaline throughout the body.  You know those people that are constantly on-edge, stressed, easily irritated, and just overall scary, because they’ve always got a million things to do?  You can thank Multitask PMS.

You’ve now seen the harmful side of multitasking, which begs the question: is there a helpful side?  Well, truth be told, not really.  But we’re college students, and we won’t be able to escape the inevitable need to multitask.  The same is true for when we enter the work force; the higher the position, the higher the amount of responsibilities held.  So rather than trying to stop the unstoppable wholly, it wouldn’t hurt to prepare ourselves with the knowledge and understanding of the emotionally, mentally and physically taxing price tags that comes along with multitasking, and make it a conscious effort to keep mindful of the price to pay.  By keeping a mental note of these things, we’ll be able to 1) catch ourselves when we’re engaged in a game of attention ping pong with our brains and 2) stop it before it causes us to lose more time and energy than we’ve already lost.
And for the ones that have continued to multitask while reading through this post, I wish you the best of luck.  I’ll leave you with some practical tips that may help.

  • Afternoon time is the worst for multitasking – supposedly, it’s the worst time in the day to do so.
  • Practice meditating – research shows that those who meditate increase development in regions associated with memory and attention.
  • Get specific about your tasks – “do homework” is so general; get specific about the steps needed to “do homework” (i.e. finish reading pages xx-xx, draft outline for paper, brainstorm for thesis, etc.)