There's Only So Much Multitasking You Can Do

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/23/2010 6:18 AM   :  116 comments   :  16,130 Views

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I spend the majority of my day multitasking. The more productive I am, the better I feel about the day. I never sit quietly and have breakfast (my only quiet meal before my kids get up) without doing work or reading or getting something else done while I eat. Sometimes it's a good thing because I'm very efficient and able to get a lot done. Sometimes it's not so good because I tend to live life at a frantic pace, staying busy all the time.

I've always been like this, and it's something I know I need to work on. But it's gotten even worse since I had kids. I'm always trying to get a million things done at once. And because of that, my memory has become terrible since becoming a mom. I used to have a great memory, but these days, if I don't write things down, I forget them. Now I know it's not just me. A new study shows why your brain will not allow you to easily do more than two things at once.

The research, published in the journal Science, had participants perform a letter-matching task while their brains were scanned. When given two tasks, the part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) divided so that half focused on the first task, and half focused on the second. So if you're trying to work on two things at once (like me eating breakfast while working on the computer), your brain adjusts to allow that to happen. But when you add a third task to the mix, things don't go so smoothly. "Here, they saw the subject's accuracy drop considerably. It was as though, once each hemisphere was occupied with managing one task, there was nowhere for the third task to go," according to the study. Participants performed as if they forgot one of the three tasks completely.

So maybe that's why I can only focus on a few things at a time before I start to forget what I was going to write on the grocery list or who I was about to call. I can stop blaming it on getting older and just blame it on my brain (haha).

What do you think?


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Comments

  • PROPMAN1
    116
    It is so true what they say about multi-tasking. Used to have an excellent memory but now with downsizing and taking on extra work of varying types have found that I can't remember much of anything (even if it's written down). Very frustrating! - 10/8/2010   9:52:37 AM
  • COPAULA
    115
    There have been several studies over the last few years that show that multitasking does impact memory....this has a great impact on not only our home lives but our work environment. I don't remember authors but my office companion and I accidentally discovered the studies while we were Googling something else related to our position as nurse educators. If you have access to a national database, it could be worth your time to investigate further. Have a grand and glorious simple day. - 5/2/2010   1:45:59 AM
  • 114
    Have you been reading my mind (or what's left of it)? Yes, I too was so proud of my multitasking skills, but have found that I constantly forget essentials (such as buying certain things at the supermarket or renewing the car insurance on time etc.) unless I do very detailed lists. Perhaps I should put 'stop, breathe, have a relaxing bath' on my to do list? - 4/30/2010   3:28:54 PM
  • 113
    Explains why we shouldn't text and drive! - 4/29/2010   7:03:30 PM
  • 112
    When i was a child I used to be deathly afraid of having my blood drawn at the doctor's office. The nurse would always tell me to count backwards from 100, taking a deep breath in between each number...all this was done by focusing on a fixed focal point on the wall. The reasoning behind this, as the nurse would tell it, is becuase the mind can't concentrate on more then three things at a time.

    I will tell you it worked every single time. I help my kids do this when ever they are faced with shots and labs and each of those appointments go nice and smooth! - 4/29/2010   11:22:29 AM
  • FITTOFIGHT1974
    111
    I hope this is a wake up call primarily to all those who think talking/texting is appropriate behind the wheel and/or in life in general when you should be aware of your surroundings. I know what my limits are and I'm almost to the point that I can't talk and drive at the same time. I'm ok with knowing that limit and either stop talking while driving or being the passenger. I'm not good at multi-tasking and the emphasis on it at work has significant diminishing returns. Yes, we should be able to handle several tasks/concepts simultaneously within a window of time but not at the SAME time. We're a mentally challenged society bent on 'bigger, faster, stronger' (ie quantity v. quality) Time to enjoy the pace that is the same as our heart - steady and strong. - 4/28/2010   10:56:39 PM
  • 110
    Gee, if I weren't able to multitask, I'd never get anything done here ! LOL !!!

    It makes sense, your brain can really do only so many things at once. If you do try, something is going to end up suffering. I've found this to be true when I do two or more things at the same time. My focus isn't as clear as it should be. So, I do my best to keep the juggling to a minimum. this way, I make fewer mistakes.
    - 4/28/2010   2:23:19 PM
  • 109
    I was the queen of multitasking. At work, people were impressed that I did many things at once without errors. I thought doing several things at a time kept my home neat and clean. People asked me to do things (committees, baby showers, etc) because I was organized and never late. My appearance was always calm, but my mind was always a whirlwind. I started sleeping poorly because I forgot how to relax.

    When I decided to slow down I learned there are 24 hours in a day. Multitasking made me feel I was accomplishing a lot. The fact is I accomplish the same things if I complete one or two at a time or of if I juggle parts of many tasks all day. The big difference is I relax and enjoy what I’m doing when I focus on one or two things at a time.
    - 4/27/2010   12:30:50 PM
  • 108
    we us americans live in a fast paced world & it doesn't slow down so we are trying to do as many task as we can to be more effiecent(thinks that's spelled wrong oops)& sometimes we get too much going at 1 time & drop 1 of the balls so to say or that's me anyway,so i have started trying to only focus on 2 things at time & then move on or inlist the help of someone else so there's 2 people & 4 hands . - 4/27/2010   5:34:35 AM
  • 107
    Just like there are people who are ambidextrous and can write with both hands equally well, aren't there a few people who are wired to be able to multitask more than three things well? I for one get bored if I'm only doing one or two things at a time... - 4/26/2010   11:26:46 PM
  • 106
    So glad it's not just me! I thought I was losing my mind - litterally! My memory is definitely not what it used to be and when I do multi-task I am only able to really focus on 2 things at once w/o the ball being dropped so now I know why! Thanks! - 4/26/2010   5:33:10 PM
  • 105
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I feel so much better about myself now. And I will start focusing on no more than two seperate tasks at a time; or even one at a time.... - 4/26/2010   3:19:27 PM
  • BERNIE22
    104
    I believe you need to make a concerted effort to eat your breakfast as 'quiet' time, spend time with your children; really look at them and observe, and sit with your eyes closed even if for a few minutes. You will miss hearing the snap, crackle and pop, the handprints on the windows and the sound of your child's laughter will soon be gone forever, and your body will get sick without rest if you don't do this. Trust me, I'm a former multi-multitasker.
    - 4/26/2010   12:54:48 PM
  • YOOVIE
    103
    wow, thanks for writing this and linking to that article, Jen. I'm a serious multitasker too, and this opened my eyes big time. Thanks again! - 4/26/2010   10:13:57 AM
  • 102
    Wow, so does this mean I am actually NOT losing my mind. I am required to multitask at work everyday. I am beginning to hate it. I can't remember anything anymore. I to thought I was losing my mind. I multitask at home as well. I have to in order to get everything done. Our lives are way too busy. But either you do it or it does not get done. Plus I do not know about you but I have to work. Believe you me if I did not have to work I would be at home taking care of that instead. - 4/26/2010   9:48:39 AM
  • 101
    IThis article is great. I used to be able to multi-task, but now I am forgetting a lot of details in what I am doing. I become very frustrated which defeats the purpost of multi-tasking. - 4/26/2010   8:24:08 AM
  • JUHOEG
    100
    I multitask all the time - 4/26/2010   7:20:25 AM
  • 99
    I'm so glad to read this, I thought I was developing dementia or something! Thanks for a great article, and I love the artwork too! - 4/26/2010   4:02:57 AM
  • 98
    Multi tasking is one of those things that the more we do it the more we feel the need to do it. If you concentrate on one task at a time you do it better and often faster. When you are talking to your family talk to one at a time and concentrate on that person. Don't grasshopper skip on ahead. There are those who listen and those who wait to talk. this applies to all actions
    Concentrate on the here and now the next moment will come in good time. - 4/26/2010   3:30:59 AM
  • MAEB47
    97
    There's are days i can do multitask and others i need to complete one at a time. Also it depends on a lot of time what the task (s) are we are trying to complete, some are dangerous and should be done along. I really believe
    depending on what task you are trying to do should determined if something
    else should be done only with another one. - 4/26/2010   2:01:56 AM
  • 96
    I recently posted this information in oneof my classes proving there is no such thing as "multitasking." You are still focused on one thing when you think you are doing more. That is why I can not walk and chew gum at the same time:) - 4/25/2010   10:38:14 PM
  • 95
    interesting. i think i will start by only doing 2 things at once. i usually have music on when i am working or working building models but, while i am hearing the music, i am not listening to it most of the time. i do think some memory problems, like forgetting where you put the keys, is more inattention than memory. i put things in the same place so i don't have to "think" about it. - 4/25/2010   7:42:40 PM
  • READYTOMOVE39
    94
    Wow, this is so how I am...after a while though, I realize that I am all over the place and need to focus. When I focus on 1 thing at a time, I feel more in the moment. When I multi-task, I feel like I am more scattered. My memory is really bad and I believe that I may develop alzheimers early in life :( - 4/25/2010   5:50:21 PM
  • 93
    This study makes sense to me. I just read an article promoting "mindfulness" as a therapy technique and it promoted doing only 1 things at a time and giving it your full attention as a way to break free of negative self-talk and judgemental thinking that could lead to negative thinking. Most of us feel we have to multi-task, but do we really? Why can't we learn to do just one thing at once? Doesn't SP promote concentrating on eating rather than doing other tasks when we eat? It all makes sense.... Now it is just a matter of putting the knowledge into practice! - 4/25/2010   3:49:15 PM
  • 92
    I would be cooking dinner, feeding the dog, washing clothes, helping the kids than decide I needed something in the home office go there and completely not remember what I was going to get. No Wonder. LOL - 4/25/2010   2:48:46 PM
  • 91
    I know I'm not the only one, but sometimes I tell people that I have too many filing cabinets in my brain and I forget which drawer I put things in, that's why I always have pen and paper in my pocket . lol - 4/25/2010   12:39:55 PM
  • 90
    Hahaha! As a mom, I so agree. I eat breakfast and check my emails, Spark page, etc. and I enjoy that "me" time. But once the kids are awake, and I need to also start fixing their breakfast, change a diaper, get clothes, etc. things start getting a little hairy. - 4/25/2010   12:11:54 PM
  • 89
    At my job, I am constantly required to multi-task, doing problem solving for a team of about 30 people in a fast-paced environment full of deadlines. This blog actually makes me feel better to know it is not just me. I constantly need to keep saying throughout the day, "Let me just finish what I'm doing, I'll be with you in a minute." If I don't, I find, if I drop what I am doing to work on the next problem, I find myself at a deadline with too many unanswered questions. I need to keep a paper right in front of me to jot down items to be addressed - or I forget. I find myself carrying this home with me and I have turned myself into a list maker or I forget things.

    Glad to know it is not just me. I keep saying that my hard drive is getting full. LOL

    One place I am trying to stop multi-tasking though is while I am eating. For one, looking through the mail, etc, while eating is counterproductive to my goals. I tend to eat so fast that I hardly know I ate; didn't focus on my food and the experience of eating; then I want more. Same with snacking while I read etc. These are things I am trying to change in my lifestyle. - 4/25/2010   9:31:30 AM
  • BRASKIN
    88
    Whoa.... reading was like seeing myself. I've been used to life as a juggler, doing several tasks at one time. As I've gotten older, it appears that I suffer more from "dashing rabbits".... I'm multi-tasking, then dropping something as I rush off to do a task I've just remembered! I guess there's lots to be said for the phrase slow down and smell the roses.....I think I'm missing a few roses along the way. - 4/25/2010   7:12:51 AM
  • 87
    Nice try, folks ... Jen, I think you are just plain tired - mentally, emotionally, and physically, which is why you start to become forgetful. This situation essentially undermines your ability to even single-task because you've fatigued every part of your brain and it wants to go to sleep! That's what I think at the moment. Sorry, but I can't think about this any further because I forgot what I was talking about ... I'll think about it some more tomorrow! ;) - 4/25/2010   2:17:08 AM
  • 86
    It makes me feel good to know it may not just be getting older as well!! - 4/24/2010   9:16:36 PM
  • 85
    Raised to be a woman at an early age in Africa, I was told to do everything all at once to meet a deadline. I was asked to do things at a pace I now think impossible. I did my best to reach my parents' goal. I'm really trying to unlearn so much that I'd been taught. Articles like this are very helpful to ease off the loads I still carry on my shoulders. Thanks a million. - 4/24/2010   8:32:00 PM
  • 84
    My job is essentially multitasking. Every few minutes I interrupt the task I was doing to wait on residents, or just to chat them up a bit. Luckily I rarely get irritated. But I do have to mentally post-a-note (as I call it) the task, so I can return to it in a few minutes. - 4/24/2010   6:55:52 PM
  • 83
    what was the question? LOL! I share that "gotta get more done" pace and appreciate the info. It makes sense. - 4/24/2010   6:08:07 PM
  • 82
    The human mind is a wonderous computer but is neither an Aple or a PC so it can not in fact multitask.The human mind is not capable of multitasking on a conscious level, it can only serial task. You can divert from one thing to another however that is serial tasking not multitasking. You can walk and chew gum ( at least some can) but that is not done on the conscious level so it is not true multitasking. - 4/24/2010   3:08:27 PM
  • STRAWBERRY*MOON
    81
    I don't believe in multitasking. To me doing so goes a long way toward significantly decreasing the quality of life. I'm referring to talking on the phone while reading and answering emails and eating a sandwich. And multitasking can cause serious physical injury--just watch what people do while they're supposed to be concentrating on driving a car. I think it's possible that multitasking is addictive--I used to be an adrenalin junkie, and I'm happy to say I'm in recovery. I suspect there are ways most of us can simply our lives if we choose to, even in the chaos we call the twenty-first century.

    I subscribe to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness--staying in the moment and focusing on exactly what you are doing at any given time. I don't always achieve that goal, but I do pursue it and do see improvement in the way my life feels. - 4/24/2010   2:42:44 PM
  • 80
    I have to joke about the 'memory loss' I call it living in the 'Here After'. What am I here after? LOL - 4/24/2010   1:57:14 PM
  • 79
    Add aging to this and BAMMM!! :) - 4/24/2010   1:34:36 PM
  • 78
    actually, the older i get the less i want to multitask whether it's work or home. there's something to be said for focusing on the task at hand but we have been forced to do so much more with less, ESPECIALLY in the workplace that a while ago, i noticed it was taking its own toll on not only me but some of the people that report to me. therefore i began to change my views. - 4/24/2010   12:08:44 PM
  • SUMMERDRAGNFLY
    77
    Thanks, Jen for the excellent article. I have read more than one study that states no one should really try multi-tasking, that you should accomplish one thing well, instead of trying to accomplish multiple tasks in a mediocre way. Makes perfect sense doesn't it. But in today's society we are so driven to multi-task which causes a cascade of trouble, bad decisions and unnecessary stress. I wonder about the brains ability to multi-task as we age, at what point in our lives should we stop trying. Also is there a difference in the female vs. male brain. All I know for sure is when I try to do more that two tasks I end up looking like a lame brain! - 4/24/2010   11:47:53 AM
  • DENI_ZEN
    76
    I think you gave us an excellent explanation of why multitasking doesn't work for so many of us (raising my hand), Jen! Thank you, and let's hear it for focus!! - 4/24/2010   11:36:33 AM
  • 75
    In a world that is increasingly wired-in and trying to mult-task chatting, texting, driving, cooking and phone conversations my husband and I have talked about this subject many times over the past few years. He's read earlier research on the subject that had similar results. I find it interesting that the research involved letter-word recognition much as might need for texting.
    Multi-tasking that one needs to prepare a meal is a different sort of high-level task that involves several tasks. It involves being able to watch one or more dishes while preparing another and prepping a table. Adding another unrelated task complicates things, but child-minding or talking to family is often part of the whole thing. This has been part of the human experience for generations, yet most people can manage it. It seems to be the unfamiliar technology that makes the multi-tasking unmanageable. - 4/24/2010   11:34:50 AM
  • 74
    Thank you so much for this article. I thought it was me. In our crazy society where everything is computerized, mechanized and due yesterday, I thought I was a throw back to an earlier, simpler, slower time. I realize now that I am just human.

    When I started to drive many decades ago, I made up my mind not to play "chicken" on the road. Today, that means not answering or speaking on my cell, texting, or anything more distracting than have a conversation with my passenger. This puts me in the minority. But I know my limitations. I know I cannot concentrate on texting or even discussing a complex issue with a client or colleague on my cell. The research shows that I am right. These actions lead to serious collisions and deaths. In many states, they are illegal.

    I also know that I do my best work when I am not doing more than two tasks simultaneously. Now I know why. BTW, the Amish have an expression for this: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get". I have another one: "There's no time to do a task once, but there's always time to do it twice". - 4/24/2010   11:32:15 AM
  • FURBALLDTH
    73
    This is a very interesting article. When I have three or more things going on at once I try and stay focused on the more important one. - 4/24/2010   11:00:01 AM
  • LINDALEE51
    72
    Thank you for the article, I am much relieved!!!! Maybe I'm not losing it. Whew! - 4/24/2010   10:22:58 AM
  • 71
    Hmm, I wonder how this impacts someone with ADD? - 4/24/2010   10:02:31 AM
  • 70
    I've never been that great at multitasking, though Ive gotten better due to necessity. I notice to as Ive gotten older I need to have things wriitten down. I have lots of reminders in my phone, or I get distracted, & tend to forget. My kids are better at this than I am. Nowdays kids have so much technology & are used to doing various things at once. I think it's okay to multitask now & then, but mistakes are more likely to happen if you do to much at once. - 4/24/2010   9:43:28 AM
  • 69
    Multi-tasking is so highly prized by employers these days that it has become a job requirement. It goes hand in hand with over-commitment, which compounds the stress and reduces efficiency.

    Sometimes I find myself in a situation where there are so many demands on my time from so many sources that I feel like my brain is about to shut down and I feel like I simply cannot handle even thinking about one more thing. Even when I'm not trying to do several tasks at once, my mind is working on scheduling, juggling priorities, deciding how to best sequence the tasks on my to-do list, and how to fit more hours into the day until I feel completely overwhelmed. That's when things start falling through the cracks.

    I just completed a two-week run in that condition and I finally got to the place where I feel like I can take a short breather. This is not a healthy way to live! It's not just about how the qualtiy of performance deteriorates with excess multitasking - it's about how the quality of life deteriorates at the same time.

    Another problem with multi-tasking is that the things you put on the back burner in order to handle the things that have to be done right now don't go away. They just sit there simmering until you have to run and attend to them before they boil over. It turns into an endless cycle that just puts way too much stress on mind, body and soul.

    A little bit of multi-tasking here an there is fine ( and efficient) but when I get to a place where I have so much on my plate that I can't think straight, it's time for a brain break - or a nice, long vacation! - 4/24/2010   8:51:06 AM
  • 68
    Honey, I am in the same group as you and have been this way since I was very young. I had a huge bunch of chores to do as a kid and learned to multitask so that I got chores and homework done to still have play time or to be able to hang out with friends. Becoming a mom has brought me to a all new level but so has age. Its taught me to seriously not stress so much. I just try to knock off as much as I can on the constant mental or written lists I have everywhere and then not worry about what's left. Once I finish a list in a few days I remake a new one to start from. Yes, if things are not written down when others tell me to remember this or that it gets forgotten in the shuffle of everyday life.

    Mainly though, I've learned not to be such a perfectionist and enjoy some quiet moments and only attempt to to do 2 or 3 things at the same time instead of it seems 100. Its all about remember to enjoy the little things in life, so I try to remind myself each and every day. Take a deep breath and not overload. - 4/24/2010   8:43:56 AM
  • 67
    I've never been great at multitasking which can be very frustrating in this day and time. Good to know this info - 4/24/2010   8:39:51 AM

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