Healthy Mind

Multitasking Is Just ‘Doing Multiple Things Badly,’ Says Neuroscientist

Erin Bunch

Photo: Stocksy/Simone Wave

Every moment of my life is multitasked. When I’m writing, I’m also keeping an eye on my Slack notifications and periodically (read: every two minutes) checking in on my email. When I’m off the clock, there’s typically a podcast running as I cook, clean, shower, or am otherwise engaged in household or hygiene maintenance. When it’s finally time to just relax and watch TV, I’m catching up on texts and social media. Even my social life is multitasked; I like to hike or do FaceTime workouts with friends while we catch up. I go so far as to use my language-learning app while I’m doing my business in the bathroom! In my world, no moment is ever “wasted” by doing just one measly little thing at a time. So, I’m a total rockstar who’s crushing life, right?

Wrong. Apparently, this is a terrifically misguided strategy that is likely contributing to the overwhelming sense of stress, anxiety, and even depression that’s more or less become my baseline emotional state. That’s according to neurologist and neuroscientist Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD, our brains aren’t designed to multitask, and therefore they simply don’t. “There is no such thing as multitasking; there is such a thing as doing multiple things badly,” he’s says.

Even though our brains are quite complex and powerful—we’ve got 87 billion neurons!—our focus is linear, he explains. “When we do multitasking, basically what we’re doing is overwhelming a gateway [in the brain],” says Dr. Sherzai. He tells me to picture twenty things trying to fit into one narrow entry point at once or, say, someone with five kids, trying to take care of all of their needs simultaneously. “Multitasking implies that you can do multiple lines of action that are not connected or are marginally connected at the same time, which implies that you can maintain focus to have some degree of function in all of those. And that’s impossible.”

Instead, we end up chronically distracted. “While we’re doing one, information from the other one is seeping in and distracting you,” says Dr. Sherzai. This actually handicaps true productivity—it’s no wonder it can take me an entire day to write, say, 300 words if I’m constantly pausing to read email—but that’s not the only issue with multitasking. It actually cripples cognitive function in the short and long term, too, because focus and attention are critical to several neuropsychological processes. “Without focus and attention, forget about short and long-term memory, forget about executive function, forget about creativity,” Dr. Sherzai says. In fact, research has shown that people who multitask “show an enormous range of deficits,” as Stanford University psychology professor Clifford Nass phrased it in an interview with NPR“They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks… including multitasking,” he said.

It gets worse. Dr. Sherzai also asserts that multitasking is the foundation of chronic stress in the modern world, and his explanation of why this is creates a serious lightbulb moment for me. Basically, he explains, multitasking prevents you from closing loops on tasks. “You’re doing multiple things, without clear success endpoints that give you satisfaction,” he says. “This actually creates chronic tension because it’s expecting something that’s not achieved. These tensions build up psychologically and over time, it becomes anxiety—and depression follows from that.” In other words, our brains are set up to reward us for reaching those endpoints and to feel stressed if we don’t, so this basically explains why even after a day spent doing the most, I often feel like I didn’t get anything—or at least, not enough—done, because I’m never truly present in any given task.

This is detrimental not just to your sanity but to your physical health, too. “Chronic micro stressors that build and build with multitasking create this storm of endocrine chemical releases from the pituitary gland, which affects your growth hormone, sex hormones, your insulin, your thyroid hormone, your cortisol levels, and your immune system,” Dr. Sherzai says. “Something as simple as multitasking is not just a chronic habit of taking on multiple things. It’s so much more than that. It’s a dysfunctional mechanism of chronic stress, destroying the body.” 

The antidote, Dr. Sherzai explains, is what many refer to as mindfulness or being present, but what he puts more simple as “doing one thing at a time with focus and attention.” This means, he says, that I need to stop listening to podcasts while I do the dishes, even though I explain to him that my mind will *absolutely die of boredom*. Boredom, he explains, is just a thought, and the idea over time is not to let those thoughts wander while I do dishes but instead to focus acutely on the act of washing. And in fact, he says, this is a good place to start trying to rid myself of my multitasking habit because it’s daily and not overly ambitious.

Expanding from there, he says, the key is to create a series of closed-loop tasks in your day. “By identifying [a task] specifically and measurably, and making sure that your success parameters are well defined, what happens [when you complete the task] is you get addicted because the dopamine released is an addiction hormone,” he says. This feel-good chemical positively reinforces the behavior, making you want to do it again and again. The overall result will then be better mental and physical health. Plus, you’ll actually get more truly done. After all, how much of that podcast are you actually retaining if you’re cooking while listening? In my experience, the answer is “very little.”

And while you’re experimenting with this process, Dr. Sherzai says that it can be helpful to pay attention to the why behind your multitasking. I may listen to podcasts while cleaning out of boredom, but I check my email while writing for a different reason—because writing is hard, and my brain wants to procrastinate by finding easier things to accomplish. Such procrastination temporarily makes you feel better, Dr. Sherzai explains, but it also ultimately makes the original task you’re trying to avoid more difficult. And it leads to the feeling I so often have at the end of the day, which is that I did so much but accomplished so little. The key, then, is to not give into that temptation for a quick hit of satisfaction in the midst of a challenging task but rather to power through and close the loop.

Eventually, Dr. Sherzai says, you will reap not just daily but also long-term benefits from this practice of sort of, well, doing the least. “You can use that focus to build thought later, you can use it to build memory later, you can use it to build executive function later,” he says. “But before all of that, you have to establish a deep calmness, a deep silence, and a focus within you.” 

I’ve been experimenting with this one-thing-at-a-time approach since my conversation with Dr. Sherzai took place, and without even a whiff of hyperbole I can actually state that it’s life-changing. I was twice as productive last week as I was the week before, but what’s more impressive is how much psychologically better I feel. And while multitasking is a beast of a habit to break—trust me, I’m nowhere near where I need to be yet—the rewards are tangible. Multitasking is, as Dr. Sherzai points, a dysfunctional maladaptive behavior, and once you start to see it that way, the art of just washing dishes begins to seem a lot less boring.

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