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How To Overcome Multitasking Madness

oggling between devices and apps is leading to shortened attention spans, errors and memory problems. There are remedies.

By Julie Jargon
Fri, May 6, 2022Grey Clock 4 min

You know that productivity rush you get when responding to Slack messages from colleagues, emailing your child’s teacher and placing an Amazon order—all while on a Zoom?

Not all multitasking is the same, of course: Folding laundry while watching TV isn’t a problem. Studying for an exam while listening to music and checking your social-media feed is.

As it turns out, media multitasking is making us less productive, not more, according to neuroscientists and others who are studying this. You might be checking stuff off your to-do list, but you might also be missing some of the more important things that go whizzing by.

Nonstop toggling between devices and apps slows our ability to process and retain information, decreases our ability to filter out extraneous information, shortens our attention span and causes us to make mistakes, neuroscientists say. The researchers say the glut of new technological distractions over the past decade means the consequences of bad multitasking are now more dire.

Fortunately, there are remedies for multitasking madness.

Walking and chewing gum

Attempting to do too many things at once causes a bottleneck in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control centre, according to brain researchers at the University of Helsinki. They conducted brain-imaging scans of young adults to see what was going on while the participants were asked to read or listen to two kinds of sentences: sensical (“This morning I ate a bowl of cereal.”) and nonsensical (“This morning I ate a bowl of shoes.”).

The participants were asked to identify which sentences made sense. They were also presented with written and spoken sentences at the same time. The participants’ ability to correctly identify sentences declined significantly when their attention was divided between the written and spoken sentences.

That original study was published in 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, and a follow-up published this month covered other ground and reaffirmed the initial findings.

Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who has researched media multitasking extensively, said the study, in which he had no involvement, provides evidence that the brain reaches a capacity limit as it tries to process two streams of information at once.

Dr. Marci first began studying media multitasking when he worked at market-research firm Nielsen as chief neuroscientist of its consumer-neuroscience division. In 2002,he saw American adults were spending up to 40 hours a week consuming media; now, they’re spending about 80 hours a week doing so.

“How do people spend the equivalent of two full-time jobs a week consuming media? It isn’t possible unless they’re doing two things at once,” said Dr. Marci, who dedicated a section of his new book, “Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age,” to the phenomenon.

Those at greatest risk are children, he said, who are spending more time on devices at ever-younger ages, which has the potential for disaster come the teenage years.

“The analogy often used when describing teens, that there’s too much gas and not enough brake, applies here,” Dr. Marci said.

Translation: There’s more available stimulation to the brain’s reward and emotion centres, but not enough friction that comes from good judgment. You get that from your prefrontal cortex, which isn’t developed until around age 25, he added.

Trouble at school and work

Numerous studies have found that learning suffers among young children even when TV is on in the background, and that grades decline when students are texting or using social media in class or when doing homework.

Adults aren’t immune to the detrimental effects of trying to do too much. We’re constantly distracted by notifications at work and families can’t seem to watch a TV show together without one or more members simultaneously scrolling social media.

These habits tend to carry over into all areas of life, Dr. Marci said, including driving, where divided attention can be fatal.

But are kids adapting to this world of multiple data streams? Will they become tomorrow’s mega-multitaskers? The answer appears to be no.

The Finnish researchers conducted another multitasking study on the recognition of nonsensical sentences. Performed a year later, this larger second study involved adolescents and young adults, who shared their daily media-multitasking habits. Those who reported the highest levels of media multitasking performed worse on the sentence-recognition tasks when they were distracted by music.

These heavy multitaskers showed higher prefrontal-cortex activity than mono-taskers. That doesn’t mean they were achieving more. They were exerting more brain effort to recognize the sentences in the presence of distraction.

“We feel we’re working harder,” Dr. Marci said. “But it doesn’t mean we’re working smarter.”

The upside? Those in the study who claimed to multitask less often were better able to tune out the distraction.

What you can do

Here are tips to help you stay on task and be less scattered.

Block out focus time. Set aside time to get a work or school project done and set your phone to Do Not Disturb. Close out of your email and other distracting programs on your computer and turn off notifications. Setting an alarm can help so you’re not watching the clock.

Set expectations. If your boss or co-workers frequently need to be in touch, let them know when you plan to be offline focusing on a project. Mark it on your calendar if you need to.

Leave your phone in another room. Whether you’re watching a movie with your family or doing homework, have your phone out of sight. Research has shown that just seeing your phone, even if it’s muted and the screen is obscured, can lead to distracting thoughts.

Teach good habits early. All of this applies to your kids, who will not only follow your lead, but will also seek any and all available distractions on their own. It’s good to set an example, as well as limit what they can and can’t do during, for instance, the homework hour.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication:  May 4, 2022

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