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The Effect Multitasking Has on the Brain

May 30, 2019

Multitasking is often considered a talent. From a maximalist perspective, multitasking is a great way to get a lot of things done in a short amount of time. Hence, why people who are skilled at it, are generally admired. But how exactly does multitasking affect the brain?

In terms of brain function, does multitasking really lead to desirable results? Studies seem to show otherwise. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that multi-tasking is actually a productivity killer because of the time wasted when switching between different tasks. The time costs also increases when the tasks at hand are more complex.

Very Well Mind offers a closer look at these results, and found that by multitasking, we force our brain to repeatedly switch between two mental executive functions. Goal shifting – the first stage – is when you decide to do another thing instead of the task you’re currently focused on. Role activation – the second stage – is shifting from the previous task’s rules to another set of rules needed to perform a different task. Rather than using your full cognitive abilities towards one task at a time, multitasking adds a small time delay every time you switch between goal shifting and role activation, which ultimately adds up to hurt your overall productivity. While the time delay may be irrelevant in mundane multitasking such as folding the laundry while watching the TV, it can result in more disastrous effects with more complex activities like driving a car while texting, or responding to internal emails while speaking with clients.

Apparently, even mono-tasking for long periods of time is not recommended. Time coach Elizabeth Grace iterates that when mono-tasking efforts go too far, they can lead to diminishing returns. For instance, if a person is working on a particular project for a few hours and cannot come up with a good solution, they will find it difficult to steer away from the same line of thinking. This, ultimately, defeats the purpose of focusing on a single task and hinders you from succeeding.

Delving even deeper into this phenomenon, Saunders explains that there is a cognitive limit to deep focus. Take a look at violinists, for instance. One would notice that even the best virtuoso violin players never practice for more than four hours because doing so could affect their mental speed limit. Hence, it is healthier to switch tasks periodically. An employee may want to set a time for background research before turning to problem-solving or writing. They may then take a lunch break, do some more research, and then return to problem-solving. In this manner, one can achieve deep work without feeling drained. This also gives the brain time to rest, providing a healthy time period for creativity and ingenuity to set in.

Therefore, after spending a lot of time on one task, it’s best to do something else entirely in order to avoid cognitive burnout. For instance, a blog post on Inside Higher Ed detailed ways to avoid burnout when getting a Ph.D. The writer cited unrelated activities, like exercising, going on a vacation, and journaling, all of which helped her fall in love with her degree again.

On the surface, it may seem difficult to juggle time between graduate studies and these other tasks. But online learning has made this increasingly possible. An article focusing on ‘Online Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees’ by Maryville University notes that online degrees are the more time-flexible option, since the student has more control of their schedule rather than adhering to fixed class schedules set by the campus. Arrangements like this may be healthier for the mind since they allow you to easily switch from one task to another. It also allows you to plan your day around your own schedule rather than have to fit it into a predetermined one.

Multitasking can be a bane or a boon to your brain’s cognitive abilities – it all boils down to how one utilizes this rather different skill. On one hand, BRAINS is familiar with how distracting and tech-powered multitasking can stagnate the foundational development of a child’s writing skills. On the other hand, both adults and children can use multitasking to do mundane tasks as well as rotate between deep-focus tasks to avoid burnout and even improve creative problem-solving. The more we know about the effects of multitasking on the brain, the better we can use it to our advantage.

Written by Jenna Baxter
exclusively for

About the Author: Jenna Baxter has been pursuing her interest in how the mind works her entire writing career. Through her research and articles, she hopes to inform readers on why the mind works the way it does, and how they can improve the health of their brain. In her spare time, she is passionate about puzzles.