You have back-to-back meetings, that report needs to be written, your emails are piling up, you keep getting interrupted to do new tasks…it seems the only way to get through everything is to attempt to juggle all your tasks at once. Right?
On a logical level it makes sense to approach all the demands at work by trying to “do it all”. However, the latest in neuroscience has called into question firstly, our ability to multitask and secondly, the impact trying to be across everything has on our brain and productivity.
The Multitasking Illusion
In her book, Make Your Brain Smarter, Sandra Bond Chapman explains that when you try to multitask, “The brain’s frontal lobe has to quickly toggle back and forth while performing two tasks.” What this means is that while you feel like you are doing two things at once, what you are actually doing is rapidly “task switching”.
The problem with “task switching” is that it takes a toll on your brain. Chapman explains, “…Your brain is built as a single channel action system with limited capacity; it bottlenecks when trying to do more than one thing at a time…” The result? You get tired, you work more slowly and you start to make more mistakes. Not a great outcome when what you are actually aiming for is to get more done in less time!
Trying to multitask also impacts how you feel at the end of the day and how motivated you feel about the work you are doing.
The Dopamine Link
Have you ever got to the end of a day of multitasking and felt totally brain drained?
Do you end the day and feel a bit “flat” or frustrated because you didn’t get as much done as you feel you could have?
As you know, trying to do multiple things at once causes your brain to get tired, but there is more going on “behind the scenes” to cause you to feel “flat” and frustrated.
A divided mind often leads to many “loose ends.” When you try to do multiple things at once it is not uncommon to end the day with lots of tasks that you didn’t finalise and complete. Why does this matter and how does it impact your mood?
When you complete something your brain’s reward pathway is activated and you get a wonderful hit of dopamine, one of the brain’s feel good chemicals. Not only does dopamine give you that, “I did it!” feeling, but it also taps into your internal motivation, causing you to want to keep going.
The problem is that when you divide your attention throughout the day and try to multitask you don’t get through as many tasks. This means that you are depriving your brain of the release of this wonderful chemical and the associated feeling of achievement, productivity, progress and motivation.
So not only is trying to divide your focus making you tired, less efficient and less capable, it’s also making you less motivated, fulfilled and happy. But there is one more hidden cost to trying to multitask.
But firstly, let me ask you, “What do you think just before you start to multitask?”
Do you think…
“I don’t have enough time to do all this!”
“I have so much to be across, I am not sure I can do it!”
“I don’t know how I am going to reach this deadline!”
Each of these thoughts (or thoughts like them) communicate a powerful message to your brain — you don’t have what you need to succeed. You may feel you don’t have enough time, support, skills or resources. Feeling this way, sends a signal to your brain that the situation you are in carries some risk, threat or danger.
The “Stress Loop”
The perception of being “unsafe” activates your body’s stress response, flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol. Fuelled by adrenaline you move out of a calm and reflective mindset and into a survival and reactive mindset.
This “brain shift” is what makes you feel “driven” to think and move quickly, which is why trying to do everything at once seems to make sense in these moments of stress and pressure. However, the decision to respond to stress by dividing your focus only keeps you firmly in the “stress loop”.
Does it matter if you are working within a “stress loop”?
Not all stress is bad, but when you tip into a highly aroused state of stress, it does start to impact not only how you think and perform but your health and wellbeing.
A Smart And Happy Brain?
When you experience high amounts of stress your pre-frontal cortex (responsible for your higher executive thinking) goes “offline,” while your limbic system (responsible for your emotional responses) takes charge.
What this means is that when you are highly stressed you will often make decisions that are not as well-thought out or considered as when you aren’t stressed. Have you ever made a decision when stressed and looked back and regretted it or thought; “What was I thinking!”
It’s not that you weren’t thinking, but that you were thinking from the part of your brain that is primarily concerned with survival. What this means is that a stressed out brain is not a smart brain and you will find it hard to think clearly, critically and creatively.
Dividing your focus and trying to multitask keeps you in the “stress loop” which means you have higher amounts of adrenaline and cortisol in your body. This is a problem when it is happening everyday and starts to impact your brain in significant ways.
Chapman explains that, “Multitasking actually makes us sick. It leads to a buildup of cortisol, the stress hormone that decreases our memory and contributes to increased brain cell death. Some scientists have even suggested that a buildup of stress and elevated cortisol levels is a major contributor to pathological conditions such as dementia.”
The good news is that there are many strategies you can use on a daily basis to better manage the demands in your workplace which will allow you to work efficiently, keep your stress levels down and to end the day feeling productive, fantastic and motivated.
In my next article “Re-Thinking How You Work” I will share with you the “how-to” of working with more focus and less divided attention.
Make Your Brain Smarter by Sandra Bond Chapman
Re-Wire Your Brain by Dr John Arden
Dopamine regulates the motivation to act, study shows, Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130110094415.htm
Dopamine, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/dopamine