When a person deals with more than one task at the same time, it’s called multitasking. Moms are typical multitaskers, especially with little kids. For example, a mom might be cooking a meal on the stove while also helping her toddler put on pants and talking on the phone with a friend, all the while her husband is asking her about dinner details. Or a person who is reading this on a computer screen or smartphone screen might also be “kind of” watching a TV show while engaging in a conversation with another person in the room, simultaneously. Most people multitask these days, but is it good for us? Some neuroscientists think not.
According to scholarly study of multitasking done by neuroscientists, multitasking ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought. Why is this? The human brain isn’t that well built for multitasking, even though the average person assumes it is. Research shows that the brain can only hold little bits of information in the mind during a single moment. Bombard it with multiple bits of info and it becomes overwhelmed.
Basically, if we were to think of ourselves as computers with cameras, we’re always looking around at our surroundings and processing information. Doing this requires mental energy. Focusing on one thing is good, but trying to focus on multiple things– at once–causes the brain to refocus, backtrack and fix errors. All of this backtracking and switching thoughts is like leading the brain into a series of rooms but just for a few seconds– not getting enough time or focus to truly explore one particular room. Thus, it’s harder to think creatively when the brain is multitasking.
Interestingly, most people will say, “Well, maybe this is true for other people, but I am GREAT at multitasking.” They are just rationalizing it, trying to convince themselves that they’re somehow superhuman.
Can you stop multitasking using sheer willpower alone? No, because new information is all around us. That said, you can choose to put away your devices, turn off others, and take mental breaks for your own good. Just because you have a smartphone doesn’t mean you have to watch it all the time. And just because you subscribe to Netflix doesn’t mean you have to binge watch whole seasons of shows while doing other things, such as eating dinner or having conversations with family members in the room.
Perhaps the best advice to multitaskers is this: get yourself out of multitasking situations by deciding to take a quick break from “the chaos.” Get up and physically move around. Take deep breaths. Increasing blood flow to the brain can help you restore focus.