QJ Science: When multitasking fails

We’re all guilty of trying to juggle more than one task at a time.

With final assignment deadlines looming, it sometimes feel more productive to multitask.

Yet it’s easy to get distracted when we’re flipping back and forth from Facebook to note-taking during lectures or always popping open more browser tabs. The truth is we may not be as good at multitasking as we think we are.

Repeatedly, research has shown that humans are inherently bad multitaskers. Our brains aren’t wired to do it well — we work best when we remain focused on one task at a time.

Even when we think we’re multitasking, in reality, we’re just switching from one task to another very rapidly.

So why does it feel like multitasking is a more efficient way of doing work? Part of it comes from reward signals in your brain.

Every time you switch from one task to another, your brain interprets it as something new, and you get a “reward” — a release of dopamine.

The released dopamine sends a pleasure signal to the brain, which makes you want to repeat the behaviour to get that signal again. Normally the dopamine system reinforces behaviours like eating or sex, which play an adaptive role in survival.

In the case of multitasking, the dopamine is telling our brain to stop focusing on one thing and keep switching to newer, more exciting tasks.

We also feel more accomplished when we multitask. It seems more productive to be able to rattle off a list of tasks that you worked on for a little bit here and there.

Even if staying focused would have resulted in higher quality work, it doesn’t sound as impressive to accomplish only one or two things.

Multitasking can have a similar effect in class. If students are distracted and unengaged in the material, they’ll participate and learn less during the class.

Hélène Ouellette-Kuntz, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, has noticed students who strive to write down everything tend to miss out on engaging in the material.

“People are fooled by the productivity of technology,” Ouellette-Kuntz said, adding that this sometimes means students aren’t making the best use of their class time.

In our hyper-connected world, staying focused can sometimes be a task in itself. We’re now expected to be constantly available by email, phone or text, which makes it even harder to stay focused.

Even if you ignore the email and plan to save it for later, it can still be detrimental to your work.

A study done by Glenn Wilson — a former visiting psychology professor at Gresham College in London — found that trying to concentrate on a task while an email sits unread can lower your IQ by as much as 10 points.

As difficult as it may sound, the best way to get things done is to put your phone away, close your email and other distracting websites and get to work.

Staying organized and sorting out your priorities is also useful.

In class, thinking critically about the material and trying to remain engaged will help you more in the long run than going home with a verbatim transcript of the lecture.

But most of all — hang on, I just have to answer this email.


Multitasking, Productivity, QJ Science

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