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Why It's So Hard to Stop Multitasking


Most of us try to cram way too many things into one day. So we end up checking email while we're on a conference call, eating lunch while working at our desk or even talking to our mom on our cell while we're at the gym (yes, I've seen people do it at my health club!). Although most of us realize that multitasking isn't really efficient, we can't seem to stop doing it. And, according to new research, there may be a physiological reason why. Multitasking makes us happy! Well, at least in the short term. 

With the advent of social media and devices that put us in touch with people 24/7, there's no shortage of opportunities to do two—or three or more—things at once. And every time we check something off of our to-do list, our brain secretes feel-good chemicals, says John Brubaker, a performance consultant, speaker and author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies From The Locker Room To The Board Room.

"We enjoy it because each time we check our email or instant message, it causes our brain to secrete dopamine similar to a drug's effect," Brubaker says. "While that momentary joy feels good, it derails us and causes us to lose focus."

This effect was recently studied and published in the Journal of Communication when researchers had college students record all of their media use and other activities for 28 days, including why they used various media sources and what they got out of it. The findings from the study showed that multitasking—like studying while watching TV—often gave the students an emotional boost, even when it hurt their cognitive functions (AKA hindered their study session).

However, while multitasking may make us feel good in the moment, it can actually contribute to unhappiness in the long haul as you wear yourself out more quickly attempting to hop from one thing to the next, says Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World

"Think of the tortoise and the hare in Aesop's fable," she says. "Who won the race? The one who had his eyes on the prize while the multitasking one ended up laughing all the way through, but lost sight of his goal and lost." 

To that point, the American Psychological Association cites a study that found that multitasking causes an estimated 40 percent drop in productivity for people, and Stanford University researchers found that multitaskers are less productive than their single-minded counterparts, and also suffer from weaker self-control, Brubaker says. In another study, research suggests that multitasking working mothers in particular suffer more from multitasking than men as they engage in it around two-fifths of their day. It actually makes them less happy, Hohlbaum says. 

The whole concept of multitasking is actually a myth, according to Hohlbaum. The human brain can truly only do one thing at a time, so even if we think we're saving time by doing two things at once, we're really just switching our focus back and forth repeatedly, which can be exhausting.

So how can you stop the habit of multitasking? Brubaker recommends setting a timer to go off at least every hour, or if you know you are easily distracted or a serial multitasker, setting it for every 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, stop what you are doing and ask yourself WIN, which stands for "What's important now?" Over time, you can help retrain your brain to focus on what's really important. 

Hohlbaum recommends switching off tools such as your cell phone, email notifications, Skype, or other instant messaging service when you really need to focus. Also, implement an open door policy: That is, when your door is open, so are you. When it’s closed, it means do not disturb, she says. 

"Accept that it is okay to do one thing at a time in the knowledge that slow is faster and fast is merely exhausting," Hohlbaum  says. "If you're doing mindless things such as watching television while checking your Facebook status, go for it. But know you aren't giving your full awareness to either thing, which can be okay if nothing's at stake. Driving your kids to soccer practice while having a business conference call wouldn't be wise, whether it makes you feel good or not. My guess is it wouldn't."

Are you a chronic multitasker? Does it make you feel good? How can you cut back and really focus on the task at hand?


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