Health & Wellness Articles

The Cost of Multitasking: 6 Health Risks You Should Know

7 Tips for Changing Your Juggling Ways

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Wet laundry that's been sitting in the washing machine for three days. A blog post riddled with spelling errors. An annoyed boss who is still waiting on the report that you were supposed to complete by day's end. What do all of these unfortunate scenarios have in common?
 
Each is the result of multitasking. Despite the common thinking that multitasking is the height of efficiency, it's being proven over and over again to be just the opposite—it's counterproductive.
 
Why is it, then, that we are enamored with the idea of being great multitaskers? We tout it as this special, essential skill, bragging to friends or family and even in job interviews about our full-time career as task jugglers. Why are we under the impression that it helps us get more done? That it is the only real way to handle the myriad of tasks being thrown our way?
 
Though it might seem like a national pastime, in practice, multitasking actually makes us less productive, increases our propensity to error, causes us to be more forgetful and makes us feel constantly rushed and stressed.
 
Brain research does not support the notion that multitasking is an asset. When looked at under the scan of an fMRI, researchers can see that, in essence, multitasking is asking the brain to split in half. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is responsible for analytical thinking, which we call on for decision making, problem solving and creativity. While the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together when focused on a single task, each side works independently when people attempt to perform two tasks at once. In short, when you multitask, you are not benefitting from your brain's full potential.
 
More Tasks, More Health Problems?
 
Aside from inefficiency, multitasking can also be hazardous to your overall health for a variety of reasons. While completing as many errands, chores or assignments on top of one another might be tempting, keep in mind that as you push towards that empty to-do list, you could be sacrificing overall happiness and health goals. Of the dangers of multitasking, six stand out.
  1. Multitasking increases our stress levels. Know this: When demands exceed abilities, stress increases. Consistently trying to meet the requirements of several tasks at once increases our propensity towards error, causing efficiency to decrease. When those tasks are important, multitasking is especially stressful. The brain responds to impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones. This approach to daily living leads to a constant sense of being rushed and overwhelmed, and a steady flow of stress hormones, which strains the body and threatens our mental and physical wellbeing.
  2. Multitasking can cause overeating and weight gain. When we eat in front of the television, talking on the phone, driving in the car, checking emails, or doing anything else that distracts us from the food in front of us, we are mindlessly eating. Studies have shown that mindless eating leads to consuming more calories than intended. We've all grabbed a bag of chips with the intention of eating a handful or two, only to reach the end of the half-hour show with an empty bag in hand. Not only does multitasking during meals distract you from noticing when you have had enough, but research also shows that when you do pay attention to your meal, you are more likely to eat less later.
  3. Multitasking takes time away from healthy pursuits. A 2001 study out of the University of Michigan showed that switching what you're doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 20 to 40 percent. That wasted time could be used to otherwise get in a workout, visit the grocery store to buy healthy food or even take time to relax, rest and rejuvenate.
  4. Multitasking could actually lead to injury or death. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in 2014, 3,179 people were killed and a whopping 431,000 injured in accidents caused by distracted driving. Pedestrian fatalities are also on the rise due to texting while crossing the street. Researchers from Australia and Spain found that when answering a text message or having a phone conversation that required a lot of attention, the distraction effect for participants was equal to the effects of having an illegal blood alcohol concentration in both countries (0.5 grams per liter). You wouldn't drink and drive, so why risk multitasking and driving?
  5. Multitasking is rewiring our brains, and not in a good way. Practicing mindful meditation increases the ability to focus and concentrate because it increases brain density and activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. As it turns out, multitasking has the opposite effect on this critical brain area. Researchers from the University of Sussex compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. High multitaskers were found to have less brain density in the ACC, as if being busy all the time trains your brain to be mindless and unproductive. Multitasking also seems to interfere with short-term memory—it's hard to hold on to vital information if you are focusing on more than one thing at a time.
  6. Multitasking can decrease life-satisfaction, and increase chances of anxiety and depression. Constantly trying to handle more than one activity at a time distracts us from the pleasures of what we choose to spend our time doing. Nowhere is this truer than when you multitask relationships. If you are not fully engaged and paying attention to your children, spouse, friend, boss or any other important person when together, how can you truly nurture this relationship that should be bringing joy and meaning to your life? It's difficult to thrive when relationships are suffering and you are constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed all the time.
 
Simplifying the To-Do List
 
If you've fallen into the habit of constant multitasking, there is no need to despair. Multitasking does not make you Superwomen. It is not an asset that helps you accomplish your dreams and goals, but rather an impediment that leaves you feeling exhausted and defeated. Begin retraining your brain to focus on one task, one project, one conversation at a time. Before long, you'll feel healthier, happier and on track to tackle any hurdle ahead—mindfully, of course.
  1. Start by prioritizing your work or home projects and set the intention of what you want to accomplish. Reduce or eliminate as many distractions as possible, set a timer and focus for a set amount of time on one task only.
  2. Plan in advance specific times to handle things that you would typically try to multitask. Allot specific times to check and return emails. Batch all your phone calls for a fixed period of the day. Handle all bill paying on the same day of the month.
  3. Exercise without your devices. If you use them them for tracking, shut off the incoming call, text or email alerts to avoid getting curious.
  4. When eating, pay attention, enjoy and savor your food. Aside from socializing with family and friends, eating should be the only thing you do at meal and snack time.
  5. Use an app such as LifeSaver (http://lifesaver-app.com/) to reduce texting while driving.
  6. Ignore the phone and turn off your text and email alerts while in conversation. Look your companion in the eye and truly listen.
  7. Take a walk without your phone. Embrace your surroundings, really focusing on the sights and sounds of the beauty around you.
Multitasking doesn't have to be a lifetime lifestyle. Making a few slight adjustments could mean the difference between stress and happiness. 

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Member Comments

  • Well, bust my buttons! This sooooo hit home with me. I never thought that multi tasking could actually be harmful to me. Going to do my best to slow down on things, I couldn't help but laugh at the walking while talking on the phone. I do it all the time. Maybe, now I will hear the birds singing and smelling the wind. Thank you.
  • I READ THREE BOOKS AT A TIME. IS THAT MULTITASKING?
  • Would someone PLEASE tell my company that? Everything is metrics, but we're constantly switching from one task to another midstream.
  • great tips better to do one thing at a time & do it well
  • Excellent reminders! We definitely praise the mulit-taskers and that is not something we should do!
  • PLCHAPPELL
    I do multitasking but I know my limits.
  • Some great ideas here!
  • Multitasking is a downfall for me. I see I need to prioritze/organiz
    e better. Work smarter, not harder. Right?!?
  • I multitask all the time, I do not have enough time to do one thing at a time. I always do 2 things at one time, except things like showering. I take my phone when I walk and stop where I am at on the street to answer any calls or messages, not while crossing the street, I have important calls to make and receive when I am out and like to have a phone for emergency. I might be out for 7 hours and would not be able to make the calls when I got open because everything would be closed. I always eat while watching T.V. and when I have company they prefer to do the same. I measure my food, so if it is a meal or snack while watching T.V. it is not extra food. While on the computer I make calls and sometimes people on the calls ask me to look up something on the computer,this way I do not have to take extra time to call them back. I check my bills,plan for the day,do laundry and eat while watching T.V. I get a lot done this way. I do not answer my phone in any checkout lines & do not drive and if I did would not text while driving.
  • I think organization is the key. Do one task, do it well and then go on to the next one. Two or three tasks not done well are a waste of time and energy.
  • I worked as a Medical Technoglist for 35 years, multitasking is expected, particularly when you work an entire medical laboratory by yourself, someone that can't won't last long in the profession. When you come back from the ER with blood and tests to get done stat in 6 sections of the lab, and screaming ensues if they are not done within 20 minutes regardless of the fact that Stats are by definition done within an hour, you run around putting things in centrifuges, Turing on machines, from department to department, for 12 hours a night. As a result I still have a hard time settling to one task around the farm. Phones however is where I draw the line, I shut off the sounds when I am away from home, no texting while driving or even shopping, there is nothing more annoying the the person in front of you so intent on their phone that checkout is put aside, causing that check out to take twice as long.
  • I try not to get distracted.. it is more relaxing.
  • During a very difficult time in my life 13 yrs ago, multi-tasking cost me way more than it ever saved me. Because I was NOT taking care of myself, working too hard, juggling too many thing, I ended up with a traumatic brain injury. TOO MANY TIMES people do NOT pay attention to their surroundings!

    Juggling was always something I was good at. Now, 13 yrs later, my life is forever changed. Wish I had known.

About The Author

Ellen Goldman Ellen Goldman
Ellen founded EllenG Coaching, LLC to help individuals struggling with health issues that can be impacted by positive lifestyle change, such as weight loss, stress management, exercise, and life/work balance. As a certified professional wellness coach and certified personal trainer, Ellen holds a BS and Masters in Physical Education and is certified by ACSM, AFAA, and Wellcoaches Corporation. Visit her at http://www.ellengcoaching.com/. Get her complimentary report, 52 Tips, Tools & Tricks to Permanent Weight Loss Without Going on a Diet, at www.endtheweightlossbattle.com.