Multitasking makes us stupid

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 29 January 2008
How to do marketing How to freelance How to write

Following news that long words make us look stupid (see Short words are best) comes a report that multitasking makes us stupid.

It comes from The Atlantic (who have now opened up their entire archive free of charge) in an article called The Autumn of the Multitaskers. (Hat tip: Slashdot.)

Here's the gist:

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires — the constant switching and pivoting — energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we're supposed to be concentrating on... studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy."

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The author suggests that difficulties with multitasking explain why the USA is simultaneously losing two wars, one in Iraq and one in Afganistan. "It also explains, perhaps, why sexual threesomes are often disappointing."

On a more mundane note, multitasking is why I get less done in a day than I'd like. I flit between answering emails, answering the phone, tinkering with my computers, writing blog posts, watching old episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, looking at The Onion, making tea, reading a book and generally pottering around. 

I still wrote about 1,000 words but I can't help feeling that if I concentrated harder on my work and got it done first, I'd enjoy guilt-free pottering more. And, I want to build a happy company where stress and guilt are minimised. I should probably provide a good example.

Anyhow, here are a couple of previous posts that may help with concentration: How to concentrate on writing and Distraction-free text editors.

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See also: happy company

Related service: Company culture