A series of new studies has found that multitasking during the workday can boost an individual's anxiety level, increase errors, reduce attention span, and negatively affect working memory.
According to the first study, conducted by University of California-Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark, a typical office employee gets just 11 minutes between each interruption, and it takes about 25 minutes to return completely to a task after the distraction. Another study by Mark finds that interrupted workers tend to work more quickly—but also experience more stress.
Meanwhile, other research—conducted by researchers from Michigan State University and funded by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research—finds that even a three-second interruption can double error rates when working on sequential tasks on a computer.
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Adam Gazzaley, director of Neuroscience Imaging Laboratory at the University of California-San Francisco, says, "When you're doing something and something else comes along to demand your attention, you need to essentially reactivate your brain to switch between neural networks," adding, "And that switching results in a cost to performance."
Similarly, Ruben Gur, the director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, says, "The brain has limited resources" and when a certain activity requires too many of those resources, "a distraction can reduce performance. " He adds, "Don't kid yourself thinking you can do two things of equal quality."
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Edward Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, says the idea of multitasking is an "illusion," and that we cannot simultaneously do two things at once. He says that people cannot fully pay attention to a phone call while they are trying to compose an email. However, he admits that a person likely can listen to music while working, because doing so actually makes them more creative and uses different cognitive functions.
Too much multitasking can be bad for you, experts say
According to Hallowell, frequent multitasking can lead to attention deficit trait (ADT), which is a high-anxiety response to a "hyperconnected" world. He says, "When people experience ADT, they have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, managing time, and may even feel a constant pressure or anxiety."
In a Carnegie Mellon University study that has not yet been published, researchers found that employee productivity declined when an employee moved between distractions, but employees were able to learn how to cope with distractions.
For the study, researchers used a control group, an interrupted group, and a group that was told they might be interrupted during a test. During the first part of the test, the two latter groups scored lower 20% of the time than the control group.
However, during the second part of the test, the interrupted group actually improved their scores—answering questions correctly just 14% less often than the control group—and the high-alert group, who was not interrupted, improved their scores by 43%, outperforming the control group.
Study co-author Eyal Pe'er, a senior lecturer at Bar-Illan University, says, "The mere awareness that an interruption could occur may have increased their alertness (or anxiety) and improved their subsequent performance."
What are the long-term effects of multitasking?
Gazzaley says the long-term health effects of constant multitasking remain unclear. He asks, "Does it lead to harmful consequences? It's a question mark, but at the moment, I'm not aware of anything in the behavior that causes harm to the brain. But it's something we need to study."
He recommends turning off electronics when intense focus is required to finish a project, but says, "if you're not on deadline or working on an important job that requires focus, multitasking can be a lot of fun."
Gur notes that the human brain can withstand and adapt to many environments, saying, "it's part of our nature to be interrupted... a healthy brain can go through a lot without being damaged" (Rush, Philadelphia Inquirer
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