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Is a Multitasking Culture Actually Lowering Productivity?

My friend McKeel Hagerty shared an article with me this morning that discusses the effects of multitasking, namely through an over-abundance of emails and texting, on the brain; how it affects our stress levels, and, our brains ability to carry on sustained levels of concentration. It’s right along the lines of some of the work I’ve been reading and following lately. It’s an important concept, not just for leaders to understand (see tips at the end of the blog), but for anyone working towards greater success in their personal and professional lives. The article is also a great read for parents, as you look to limit screen time or the number of devices your children use as their young brains are still growing and forming.

Read ‘Why the modern world is bad for your brain’ by Daniel Levitin on theguardian.com.

Here are some key points from the article, which come from a book I recommend, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin.

When it comes to multitasking with our smartphones, tablets, and other devices, “There’s a fly in the ointment.”

“Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. […] Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.”

If you suspected that letting your kids do homework with the TV on might be a bad idea, you were right…here’s why:

“Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve.”

When you have too much on your plate (or you are trying to do too much at once), although you might feel like you are getting a lot accomplished as you jump from answering emails, to responding to texts, to posting on Facebook or Instagram, it can lead to more stress, and poor decision-making.

“And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour.


It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”

The neural addiction caused by email, Facebook, Twitter and any of the latest social media phenomenon are bypassing the “planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex.”

For that reason, I encourage you to invest 10-15 minutes of sustained thinking, and read the article in its entirety!

Read ‘Why the modern world is bad for your brain’ by Daniel Levitin on The Guardian website.

Consider Some of These Implications for Leaders:

  • Does your organization rely too heavily on email, IM, or texting? Consider when person-to-person contact via phone, video call, or meeting would be more effective.
  • Do you allow people to use cell phones during meetings? Or do you ask people to put them in airplane mode?
  • Do you / your teams take periods of the day to shut down your email and focus on a particular project? Why not?
  • Do you consider what medium of communication will be most effective, given the goal and the intended outcome? Or do you do the quickest and easiest thing?

Related Blogs by Joe Caruso:

  • Nearly 70% of adults are not honest on social media – read more.
  • All of this multitasking and frequent distractions make it harder for us to take time for ourselves. Read about Three Things Successful People Do

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