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Why Multitasking May Be Bad for Your Brain

multitasking moms

Moms can do it all… or can they?
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

I’m sitting at my desk typing away (okay, I’m lying on the bed) when my phone dings, alerting me instantaneously that I have a new email. Keeping one hand poised over my keyboard, I grab my now blinking phone to check my new message. I glance through the email as I pull up my calendar on the computer. As I pull it up, I see new pictures have just arrived in my Dropbox. I look over them as I go to jot down the dates I need to remember, but suddenly I have no idea when they were, or what I was writing about before my phone interrupted me.

This is not an unusual situation for me. I’m constantly doing a thousand things at once, with my head spinning in a million different directions. It makes me feel like I’m being efficient, but really most times I’m not even fully grasping a single thing I’m doing. As a woman, and especially as a mom, I’m sure I’m not alone in this pressure to multitask. It’s in our nature: We may be on the phone, packing a lunch, and trying to explain why Elmo suddenly disappeared from the TV screen all at the same time. Kids – or certainly my toddler – don’t know the world doesn’t revolve around them. We can’t drop everything we’re doing all the time to attend to them. Hence we multitask.

Every time I multitask I’m reminded of a college assembly I attended on the difference between men and women. I don’t remember most of it, but one thing has stuck with me through the years and it makes perfect sense. The speaker described the main difference between men and women, in her experience, was the way they think. She described our brains as Post-It notes. Picture a Post-It note stuck to your forehead, as if it were a fridge. Women have Post-It notes with lists of tasks. Men however, have a Post-It note that’s horizontal, as if you’re looking at it from the side lying on a table. There’s no room to make a list of tasks: they can only focus on one thing at a time. It explains a lot, like why your husband simply nods when you tell him you’re booking a million-dollar vacation to some far away tropical island while he’s watching football. His Post-It note is occupied by the game; there’s no room for your chitter chatter.

For a long time, I thought this simply proved women are more efficient. While this may be true, it’s not because we’ve mastered the magical skills of multitasking. In actuality, multitasking may be holding us back. Research from Stanford University revealed that people who multitask are less efficient and more distracted than those who don’t tend to multitask. It’s likely even worse now that we have endless things to distract us: television, cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, video games, etc. It’s not uncommon to be texting in the middle of writing a report on your computer or playing a game on your phone while you’re watching TV.

Studies have shown that not only does this make us less efficient, it can actually hurt our performance. Since science has already shown that the brain doesn’t operate well when focusing on more than one task at a time, the Stanford researchers put high and low multitaskers to the test with three separate activities to see if there was something that gave the high-multitaskers a leg up. They looked to see if the multitaskers were better at filtering out useless information, if they were better at storing and organizing information, or if they were better at switching from one task to another. The low-multitaskers out performed the proficient multitaskers on all accounts.

Whether this means people that already perform low in these areas tend to multitask more by nature, or whether the multitasking is causing them to perform such tasks poorly is yet to be known, but either way: multitasking doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Another question is whether kids that are born into an environment that’s now inundated with ways to multitask with media will be better equipped to handle distraction and task switching. We better hope so, considering 58% of teens engage in multitasking “most of the time” and 29% of teens are using more than one type of media at a time, according to the 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Not surprisingly given the ‘Post-It note scenario,’ the same report found girls were more likely to multitask than boys.

Maybe this is why my “mom-brain” has kicked into full gear these days. Or rather, not kicked in: I’m more distracted than ever and I can never seem to remember what I’m doing. Guess I better switch off my email alerts and pick one thing to focus on at a time. Now, what was I doing?

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