The temptation to multi-task often seems irresistible.
For instance, our cellphones continually call out to us with notifications of text messages, Facebook postings, new emails, and more.
Too often, all those distractions pull us away from spending time with friends, eating dinner with family or focusing on the road when we’re driving.
Now disturbing insights are coming to light thanks to new research into what happens when you try to do more than one thing at a time.
There are dangers you should be aware of before you make your next attempt to “multi-task”. . .
Too Many Tasks, Too Little Time
Perhaps the greatest dangers of multi-tasking occur when you’re behind the wheel of your car. When your cellphone signals somebody calling or texting as you drive, your life – and the lives of other drivers and pedestrians – can be in jeopardy if you try to respond at once. Of course the impulse is powerful to do just that.
And now research in Germany shows that as we age our problems with cellphone distractions get worse.
Using a video driving simulator, this study compared how younger drivers – in their twenties – responded to texting and multi-tasking compared to older drivers over the age of 65.
In the tests, a large percentage of people of all ages made potentially deadly driving errors – veering off the road or steering into oncoming traffic – but older drivers made many more mistakes.
The researchers don’t encourage anyone at any age to drive and use a cellphone at the same time. But they warn that “older drivers are at a higher risk of causing an accident when they engage in a task that takes gaze and attention away from the road.”1
Do Multi-Taskers Get More Done?
Besides the fact that modern electronic devices make it hard NOT to multi-task, there’s also an aura of glamor or sophistication surrounding the multi-tasker. We’re told that smart, successful people know how to do several things at once, no problem.
We don’t do several things at once. Our brains merely switch quickly back and forth from one to another. So in reality we’re only doing one thing at a time, for few seconds or minutes, then flipping to something else.
Even something as innocent as listening to music while we read or study is a fraud. The brain isn’t doing both at once. We merely focus on the music briefly, then back to the words on the page, then back to the music, and so forth. And we actually get less done.
Focus and concentration are where it’s at.
Multi-tasking can obliterate your productivity. Studies now show that when you multi-task, you find it harder to retain information and your performance on each task suffers. But apparently some people are better at it than others.
A study at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow shows that women’s brains – at younger ages – are a little better able to handle multi-tasking’s juggling act.2
These researchers found that the brains in women under the age of 45 used up less energy and had to mobilize fewer neurons when trying to multi-task than men’s brains. However, over the age of 45, the female brain loses this advantage although the researchers can’t explain why.
But no matter what your age or sex, the research shows trying to multi-task is a fool’s errand. You can’t do a good job on anything when you’re are trying to do two or more tasks simultaneously.
Consider a study that looked at what happens when emergency physicians attempt to multi-task. According to these researchers, mutli-tasking is not feasible. They note that it “is not possible except when behaviors become completely automatic.”
They also point out that multi-tasking “causes disruption in the primary task and may contribute to error.”3
Multi-Task More, Learn Less
The fact is, there is no good way to multi-task. It is especially harmful when you are trying to learn something new. A study at UCLA shows that juggling tasks as you try to remember things actually sends your new information to parts of the brain you can’t access very well.4
“Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multitasking, you will use different brain systems,” says researcher Russell Podrack. “When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don’t learn as well as if you had paid full attention.”
And one last warning – you probably shouldn’t even multi-task when you shop. Research at NYU demonstrates that using your phone in a store can interfere with your shopping decisions.
In this study, the distractions from cellphones frequently blurred shoppers’ decision-making abilities about what foods to buy. As a result, they made poorer purchasing choices.5