Close Your Tabs: Why You Should Maybe Stop Multitasking

My friends and I were studying together when one of them started counting the tabs on my computer screen. Making it up to 22, I shut the screen before he continued.

22. I had 22 tabs open, and that happens at any given time.

Do I really think I’m that good at multitasking?

I’m noticing that the habit doesn’t stop at my computer screen. While doing my math homework I’m already thinking about my chem lab tomorrow. While writing my anthropology essay, I’m thinking about my research presentation due next week.

My brain is moving too fast and not in a good way. I catch myself thinking about too many things on a surface level and they kept on piling up.

I recently came across a simple yet profound proverb: Do what you’re doing.

Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

It means (as I’m being so bold as to interpret) that we should focus our energy on the thing we’re doing, not letting our mind wander to the next.

This allows us to monotask, to focus our whole self on doing one thing well, then moving onto the next. This opposes my natural inclination to take on a million things then subsequently do them mediocrely due to time constraints despite my best efforts to do them well.

This simple shift in my mindset creates powerful change in my day and in how I do things I need to do.

We are told, directly and subconsciously, that not only can we multitask but that we must multitask to be successful.

Can we really multitask?

There are two types of multitasking: dual-tasking (think texting and driving) and task-switching (think quickly switching between writing emails, opening that Facebook tab, and writing an essay). Even though we’re told that we can multitask, the brain cannot multitask well.

Multitaskers are estimated to lose up to 40% of their productivity. A study at Vanderbilt University studied fMRI scans of students juggling two assignments. Instead of the brain processing the assignments in parallel, the brain dealt with each assignment one by one. This suggests that brain functions slow when multitasking. The brain works most effectively when it can focus on a single task for a longer period of time. Even though we think we’re being efficient, productivity is ultimately lost.

Though the brain is complex and can perform many tasks, it cannot multitask well. Switching between tasks creates a “start-stop” snippet pattern that costs time rather than saving it, and increases stress levels. 

Ahhh stress, that golden nemesis of a word that we try to run away from only to find ourselves surrounded by it constantly. If you’re trying to outrun stress, maybe don’t multitask.

Smart Phones, Facebook, Netflix-Oh My!

Not to mention Netflix and the 20+ tabs open on my laptop at any given time.

Social media, TV, smartphones, computers, and other forms of tech compete for our attention, increasing multitasking tendencies. This increases distraction and decreases productivity. Heavy media multitaskers show worse performances on tests of task-switching ability (Poldrack 2009: 2). This is likely due to lower ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. This shows that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.

The West Knows Best…Right?

The pinnacle of a “good life” in America is quite different from those lives in, say, Italy and other countries.

In Italy, the wealthiest of individuals enjoy lives of leisure. Citizens covet the lives of the rich for their ability to do nothing, to relax, and to spend time with family and friends.

In America, our credibility is directly proportional to the number of things we are doing. We revere the busy. Stressed people must be doing important things.

If you’re not doing everything…what are you doing?

Multitasking in America is correlated with a strong work ethic. We convince children from a young age to prepare for life by getting busy. That’s what adulthood is.

As the workforce becomes more competitive and more value is put on tangible accomplishments, multitasking behavior is growing into an ideal for American society.

The more hours you put in the better worker you must be, so we think.

However, in many other countries, shorter work days, shorter hours worked, and a greater work-life balance yields greater productivity, decreases stress, and increases success.

So maybe less is best. Maybe one thing at a time. Maybe I should close my 22 tabs.

Image by Anna Schultz

 

Kylie Necochea

Studying biology and public health in San Diego. You can find her hiking somewhere, running to early 2000s Disney channel tunes, trying to make chemistry fun, or thinking of one-liners to impress Tina Fey with if ever on a shared 30 rock elevator ride (fingers crossed).

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