I'm A Cognitive Neuroscientist & Here's Why You Need To Stop Multitasking

Communication Pathologist and Neuroscientist By Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., BSc
Communication Pathologist and Neuroscientist
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.
Unrecognizable Woman Eating at Her Desk

When we multitask, we end up with what I call "milkshake thinking," which is the opposite of mindfulness. Every rapid, incomplete, and poor-quality shift of thought makes a "milkshake" with our brain cells and neurochemicals.

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Conscious, cognitive multitasking disrupts the balanced flow of energy (delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma) in our brain circuitry. When we consciously try to jump rapidly from one task to another, we essentially cloud our ability to concentrate and think deeply, which can reduce intelligence in the moment and affects our ability to do a task well, leading to unnecessary levels of anxiety and stress in our life. 

We need to recognize that although we as humans can do busy well, we need to learn to do busy wisely. This does not necessarily mean we need to slow down. Rather, we need to find ways to organize and compartmentalize our thinking. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I've homed in on a few best practices that may help:

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1. Remind yourself in the moment that you can't do everything at once.

Tell yourself things like "I can't finish this now but will as soon as I am done sorting this problem..." or "I will make a note of where I am in this document and what I was thinking, so I can pick up here later..." Maybe write these down on a few sticky notes or Post-its and put them near your desk or fridge or even as reminders on your smartphone.

2. Tell people who need your attention to give you the time to finish what you are doing. 

Don't be a "yes person." Having definitive boundaries in your work and home relationships will help you compartmentalize your tasks, keeping things tidy in your mind and helping you prioritize what needs attention and what can wait. 

Often, we keep our boundaries secret out of fear of affecting a relationship or affecting how someone sees us. We end up saying yes to things we don't want to do, which can make us feel trapped, depressed, uncomfortable, resentful, or anxious. This, in turn, will affect not only our mental well-being but also our physical health and ability to think because our feelings change the way our brain and body functions—right down to the level of our genes.

Boundaries, like property lines, need to be clear so that other people know when they are crossing them and when they are causing mental distress. When you understand why you need the mental space to complete a task and how important this space is, you can let other people know in a calm and collected way what you need.

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3. Choose to focus on one thing. 

Where you direct your mind is a choice, one that can affect you in either a positive or negative direction. This is especially the case with multitasking. You can reduce the anxiety that comes with decision fatigue—the feeling of being overwhelmed by the plethora of "would" or "could" choices we all face daily—by choosing, in the moment, to stay focused on a task and disregard less urgent demands. When you do this, you actually build up your mental strength and resilience, which will help you better deal with disappointment, failure, and the daily anxieties of life.

4. Limit the time you spend online.

Although technology has many benefits, constantly being bombarded with information and stimulation can be very distracting, so try to limit the time you spend online, especially on social media

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5. Practice deep thinking and mindfulness.

Practice spending time focusing and thinking deeply on a task. Meditation is a great way to do this, as well as brain-building, or learning something new by focusing deeply on the information you are trying to learn, whether this is from a book, article, podcast, or class. This deep, intellectual thinking activates the prefrontal cortex in a positive way.

This kind of thinking also trains the brain to build memory well. In 2012, a research group at the University of Washington completed an interesting study about the effects of meditation training on multitasking. They found the subjects of the study had fewer negative emotions, could stay on task longer, had improved concentration, switched between tasks more effectively in a focused and organized way (as opposed to haphazardly dashing back and forth between tasks), and spent their time more efficiently. 

We saw something similar in my own research with patients who had traumatic brain injury (TBI) and students and adults who had learning and emotional disabilities. I trained them in a new technique I developed to promote a more deeply intellectual thinking pattern and showed them how to apply it to their life. The changes were almost immediate: better focus, understanding, efficiency in shifting between tasks, and overall effectiveness in producing quality work. There were even positive emotional changes, specifically in self-motivation and self-esteem. Over time, they continued to improve in cognitive and emotional functioning.

In my recent clinical trials, we observed that when people consciously and deliberately focus on managing their minds in the moment, they don't multitask. As a result, they feel less anxious and depressed and are more empowered to deal with the challenges they face.

An additional benefit from deep thinking is increased gyrification, a lovely word that means more folds in the cortex of the brain. These extra folds allow the brain to process information faster, make decisions quicker, and improve memory. In sum, deep, mindful thinking means a healthy brain.

Of course, life can be distracting, and sometimes it is hard to resist the temptation to multitask. However, how and where you choose to direct your attention is a choice. Always remember, you can choose not to multitask. You control the distractions; the distractions don't control you.

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