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Always switched on: what years of multitasking does to our brains

We've been doing productivity wrong.

DAVID NIELD
3 MAR 2016
 

It's an accepted fact of modern life that there are always multiple tasks fighting for our attention: just on your smartphone alone there are probably three or four different apps that can ping you at any time of the day, and when you add work duties, family commitments, and household chores to the mix, it's no wonder that many of us are feeling busier than ever before.

Much of this busyness has been brought on by recent technological innovations – specifically the Internet and the smartphones we connect to it – and scientists are trying to understand more about how this new hyper-connected, always-on, constantly multitasking way of life is affecting our brains in the long-term. You might have noticed that you struggle to stay focused on one task any more: but is there a real and permanent change happening?

 

Cal Newport, an author and computer science professor from from Georgetown University, thinks that long and deep periods of single-tasking are still crucial to our mental well-being, as he explained to Fast.Co's Vivian Giang. Bouncing from task to task deteriorates the muscle that allows us to focus for extended periods of time, Newport says: "For an effort to be considered deep work – and for it to reap the rewards depth can offer – there can be no distraction."

Even just glancing at your inbox or knowing there's an unread message to check up on can impair your ability to complete the task you're currently working on.

Switching between browser tabs or different jobs might give you a false sense of productivity, but you're in fact working less efficiently across every task: we leave behind what's known as 'attention residue' when jumping from job to job.

The research backs up what Newport says. Multitasking - which is actually quickly switching between tasks rather than doing any of them simultaneously - can reduce your productivity by up to 40 percent. It also impairs the ability of our brains to learn new skills. There's even some evidence that multitasking too often causes permanent damage to the brain.

Unfortunately, multitasking produces a feeling of instant gratification that we're getting more done, but Newport says we need to cultivate an attitude towards single-tasking instead: "Shallow tasks like reading and responding to emails or checking social media might prevent you from getting fired, but it's deep tasks that produce the value and build the skills that get you promoted."

Essentially, human brains weren't built to multitask.

As the University of Minnesota's Sophie Leroy puts it

"People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task, and their subsequent task performance suffers."

Being able to work on one task exclusively for an extended period of time is good for our productivity and for our brains, Newport argues. He recommends putting a limit on the amount of phone (and tablet) checking you do, and putting distractions out of reach.

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