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Your Brain Doesn't Multitask as Well as You Think

Lauren Ruef

The way we work affects the quality of our work. This is common knowledge. But the dizzying heights of multitasking have ushered in distraction as an accepted cultural mores in the workplace. Chances are, even while reading this, you're flipping between screens.

Checking an unanswered text message, searching for a recipe online, or drafting an email, all do the same things to our brain. The appearance of compartmentalization takes precedence over focus and linear prioritizing. In fact, if you don't have two desktop screens populated with dozens of open windows, you can't possibly be getting anything done, right?

Quite the opposite rings true. When it comes to multitasking, "the more the merrier" philosophy does not apply. While our brains have become addicted to the noise like the body is to sugar, its impulses don't always steer us in the right direction.

multitask without distracting yourself and be productive
Multitasking and distraction are often one and the same. - Nvoicepay

So what is the right direction?

With even the slightest shift in the breeze, distraction can send us down an unintended rabbit trail. It's easy to get lost in the digital maze and wonder where the time went. Even easier is believing that multitasking is something we can manage.

The struggle to pare down distractions

Think of the dozens of other things going on around you at work. A playlist of music streams through your headphones, an instant message app pings every minute, a new email floats into your inbox, that loud conversation catches your ear from across the room.

The body responds negatively to this stimulus by producing cortisol. Cortisol levels increase the minute you switch to a new task indiscriminately. This causes a downgrade in focus and task efficiency.

But the brain has undiscriminating taste in what it rewards vs. what is sustainable for focus. Distracted behaviors are highly addictive to the brain. The effects of multitasking release a dopamine feedback loop in the brain, rewarding it for seeking out novelty through distraction. The prefrontal cortex—the very thing needed to focus—loves shiny things.

Environment as a predictor of success

So the brain rewards bad behaviors and the problem starts with environment. Author James Clear writes extensively on environment's impact on personal success, stating the number one key to success is preemptively removing distractions. Clear says:

"It can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit. To be sure, those things matter. What is interesting, however, is that if you examine how human behavior has been shaped over time, you discover that motivation (and even talent) is often overvalued. In many cases, the environment matters more."

The neurochemical cocktail created in our brains through multitasking tricks us into believing that progress is happening. When we feel good as we multitask, we also believe that it works. But if we want the best outcome for productivity, a work environment sans distraction is the ticket.

The experts weigh in

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT says that there's a "cognitive cost" every time our brain switches between tasks. Our brain burns oxygenated glucose more quickly when multitasking, causing it to fatigue more rapidly. Attention span shrinks, and some have even argued IQ does as well. This taxes the brain's overall performance.

As distraction lies at our doorstep, we must also consider the effects of the world of hyper-immediacy we live in. Technology's digital speedways of communication have introduced decision paralysis to the mix.

With emails continually dripping into our inbox, a healthy compartmentalization of tasks and impulse control disappears. In this environment we fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent. Always something new to look at is candy our brain cannot resist. Instead of cordoning off time to answer someone's communication by handwritten letter, complete strangers have unparalleled access to our attention through email.

Adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into our blood streams and we pay for the exacting toll of distraction on our bodies. Cloudy thinking and anxiety are the byproducts of multitasking. A sense of impending uncertainty threatens our sense of accomplishments. We wonder if our efforts will be enough. While multitasking dulls our ability to be satiated, we must learn impulse control by creating better environments for focus.

Enough is enough

Put a stop to sensory overload by choosing to fight distraction. Use mindfulness software or social media blockers to pare down your focus. Change your physical environment and seek out a quiet corner of the office for projects. Buy a pair of noise cancelling headphones for your desk. Turn off pop-up notifications for email and text. Help your brain out by removing the opportunity to get distracted in the first place.

While it might be hard at first, stop listening to music while you work. The brain wastes energy as it navigates lyrics and melodies playing in the background. Stop asking the brain to do too much and commit your attention capacity to the most important tasks. The source of distraction in the workplace is overcommitment of our attention. Don't ask your brain to do too much!

Stop when you need a break. Even go for a walk to increase blood flow to the brain for greater creativity. Don't be tricked by the release of dopamine into thinking you are accomplishing a lot while multitasking. It's a sugar rush of attention that's bound to come crashing down on your productivity and ability to focus over the long haul.