Linda Lewis Griffith

Why multitasking doesn’t work

Linda Lewis Griffith
Linda Lewis Griffith jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Think multitasking makes you more productive? Think again.

Neuroscientists have discovered that rapidly switching between two activities actually reduces the attention we pay to either job and wastes precious energy needed to fuel our brains.

The behavior may work if we’re doing simple tasks, such as folding laundry and watching TV. If the chores are complex, though, and require attention to detail, multitasking interferes and is often responsible for mistakes.

It’s especially problematic if we’re learning something new. In a study published online in Science Daily, psychologists at UCLA found that learning while multitasking was less flexible, more specialized and more difficult to retrieve. Tasks that require more attention, such as calculus or learning Latin, are particularly adversely affected.

According to Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study, “The best thing you can to do improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember.”

Multitasking also impairs judgment and performance.

Research published in the online Journal of Retailing showed that shoppers assigned to buy three snacks totaling fewer than 500 calories were more likely to exceed their caloric limit if they were multitasking by talking on their cell phones. Scientists hypothesized that the stress of doing two things at once negatively impacted the subjects’ ability to make accurate purchasing decisions.

To make matters worse, people tend to overestimate their abilities to multitask.

Data from the University of Utah appearing in the online journal PlosOne demonstrated that subjects who rated themselves top flight multitaskers were easily bored, had trouble focusing and were less able to block out distractions. Doing many things at once wasn’t a well-thought-out strategy. Instead it was a response to their inherently antsy nature.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.

How to stop multitasking:

  • Prioritize your tasks. Decide what you absolutely must get done today. Tackle that chore first.
  • Create a distraction-free workspace. Try to work when interruptions are least likely. Arrive early to the office before everyone else. Or close your door to signal “No interruptions!”
  • Rid yourself of distractions. Disconnect from the internet. Silence your cell phone. Turn off music.
  • Avoid checking emails or going on Facebook. You’ll get pangs of longing throughout the day. But fight the urge.
  • Put your cellphone in the trunk while you drive. It may seem a drastic measure. But it’s the only way to guarantee you don’t use it if you’re behind the wheel.
  • Don’t overbook. Leave enough space in your schedule to prevent inevitable crises from hijacking your whole day.
  • Give yourself shorter deadlines. Knowing that you have finite time means you can’t afford to get sidetracked.
  • Follow one task from start to finish. Don’t let up until it’s completed.
  • Take periodic breaks. Stand up. Walk around. Breathe slowly 10 times. Clear your head before getting back to work.
  • Be kind to yourself. No one’s perfect. There will be times when multitasking’s the best choice. Just don’t make it a habit.
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