Effects of Multitasking on Mental Health

Woman frazzled by multitasking

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Multitasking Can be Bad for Your Mental Health

For a while, it was considered positive to be able to multitask. The idea was that people could take on our 24/7 society and be more productive by doing two things at a time, like sending emails while watching TV, or texting plans for tomorrow while doing homework.

Now research is showing that we are actually more productive and calmer when our brain focuses on thing at a time. The more important finding from research is that multitasking can be damaging to mental health.

Research on Possible Brain Damage from Multitasking

Researchers at Stanford University found that people who try to focus on several streams of electronic information at once are paying a price with their diminished ability to do one task well. Multitasking has been found to negatively impact memory and the ability to focus.

The Stanford study revealed that those who multitask found it more difficult to remember information than those who completed one task at a time. The ability to pay attention was also worse in those who multitask than in the participants who focused on a single objective.

A study done at the University of London showed that multitasking actually lowered a person’s IQ. Researchers found that participants who multitasked saw a decline in their IQ similar to someone who had gone without sleep for a night.

Even more disturbing are findings from research at the University of Sussex in England. MRI scans of the brains of people who spent a lot of time on several devices, like phones, computers and TV, had less brain density in a region that affects empathy and cognitive control. So far, it’s not clear whether that finding about the brain means multitasking on electronic devices causes that density issue, or that people who already have that brain formation tend to multitask. However, the risk of changing brain functioning seems to put a shadow over any potential value of multitasking.

The Anxiety of Multitasking

The effect of multitasking can be an overall sense of anxiety because the brain is trying to juggle too many things at once, when it’s naturally more comfortable focusing on one task at a time.

Some studies have found that multitasking can increase negative emotions, make a person feel more irritable or impatient, and even lead to chronic stress.

3 Tips to Break the Multitasking Habit

  1. Shift your focus: Practice purposely shifting mental gears as you finish one task and then turn your attention to the next one. If you’re sitting on your sofa and texting, finish that and put your phone out of sight. Then move to a different seat, maybe a desk or table, and begin responding to emails on your computer.
  2. Relax your brain: After texting or talking on your phone give your brain an intermission. Walk outside for a few minutes and enjoy the trees or flowers, or even people walking by. Allow your brain to become still and rested.
  3. Practice mindfulness: Take regular mindfulness breaks. Be in the present moment, aware of your thoughts and body sensations without judgement. Let go of worrying about what happened yesterday or last year and stop planning your grocery list or what you have to do at work tomorrow. Just allow yourself to “be.” This gives your busy mind a rest and is good for overall physical and mental health.

References
Peterson, Tanya J., “How Multitasking Hurts Mental Health,” healthyplace.com, 2019

Bradberry, Travis, “Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career, New Studies Suggest,” Forbes, Oct.8, 2014

Gorlick, Adam, “Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows,” Stanford Report, Aug. 24, 2009

American Psychological Association, “Multitasking: Switching Costs,” March 20, 2006

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