One thing at a time may be better for your mind

Does trying to do three things at once really mean doing nothing at all?

John Grimley

Next time you have a minute before class starts, take a second to see how many people are texting friends while listening to music and doing the Sudoku or surfing the Internet on their phones, casually talking to the person sitting next to them and skimming the chapter they should have read. Even the professor will most likely be setting up a PowerPoint, reviewing lesson notes and talking to students. The collegiate life fully embraces the skill of multitasking, yet recent studies have shown that multitasking may not be as efficient as we all think. Instead, multitasking could be making us do lower-quality work, giving us more stress and even lowering our IQs.

Stanford University professor Clifford Nass published a study in 2009 focusing on the multitasking habits of college students. The results were contrary to the popular belief that multitasking is a way to make good use of time and gets work done quickly. In fact, as Nass explained during a 2009 interview with NPRâÄôs show Science Friday, multitasking can actually slow us down.

Nass looked at Stanford college students who were admitted multitaskers and tested several different focus-related abilities.

One of the items Nass focused on was how efficiently multitaskers managed their working memory. In his interview with NPR, he explained this as viewing our memory in terms of an organized filing cabinet. The test had people categorizing a string of random words, ignoring the words that were preceded with a beep. Not surprisingly, frequent multitasking students had more disorganized working memories than other groups.

Another thing Nass looked at was how well multitasking students switched from one task to the other. This should have been the area that frequent multitaskers excelled at, yet the study showed otherwise. When it came to switching from one focus to another, multitaskers were slower and worse at it than the other groups.

Although we may think that writing a paper for class while making weekend plans over Facebook at the same time is efficient and a great way to sneak in some Jersey Shore before bed, thatâÄôs probably not the case. Despite the fact that our brain tells us weâÄôre awesome at multitasking (like it does with a lot of skills), science says otherwise. Unfortunately, this probably wonâÄôt stop us from continuing to try it.

Nass (and others) have found that even those of us who multitask a lot are not good at it. It seems our brains cannot handle more than one or two simple tasks at once. So every time we switch between reading a textbook and Facebook chat, our brain has to reset its focus. This takes less than a second, but itâÄôs still work to our cranium.

Much like ourselves, brains donâÄôt really appreciate extra work. Extra work means they donâÄôt move quite as fast as normal. Ironically, multitasking usually means you finish all the tasks in more time than it would take if you approached them one at a time. Simpler activities can be exceptions, like studying while waiting for your laundry or checking e-mail while cooking a pizza. In general however, it is faster to focus on one thing at a time. Of course, itâÄôs a lot easier to tell ourselves to do something than to actually go through with it.

Even though we donâÄôt do most activities as fast as normal while we multitask, at least we get stuff done, eh? Another negative side effect of doing several activities at once is that we tend to do worse at everything involved. How many times have you accidentally typed something you just said to your roommate into a paper? Studies show that when we do multiple things at the same time, the quality for everything tends to suffer. Talking to your mom over the phone while checking e-mails means that you wonâÄôt remember much of what either had to say. Again because our harried brains cannot handle more than one or two inputs at the same time. No matter how much we want them to.

Yet the scariest consequence of multitasking is that it may be turning us into idiots … well, not really but it could be harming our intelligence. Another study done by Professor Earl Miller at MIT showed that multitasking frequently can lower a personâÄôs IQ a full 10 points. This is the equivalent of losing an entire nightâÄôs sleep, something that a lot of college students can, unfortunately, relate to.

It could be because multitasking uses a different part of the brain than normal thought process does. This makes the regular sectors of the brain go unused for long periods of time. Like a muscle, if the brain does not use an area frequently it can weaken. Even better, multitasking sends information to the wrong parts of the brain, which makes learning almost impossible. It also ups hormone levels, turning us moody and stressed out.

Not only did that English essay take longer, but trying to write with Gossip Girl on in the background probably made you grumpy. It may have lowered your intelligence to boot.

For most of us, multitasking isnâÄôt a choice. We do it to make deadlines and keep commitments. If we stick with the mindset of making multitasking the exception rather than the rule, it can do wonders to our study habits, stress levels and the brain in general. Making a conscious effort to limit our juggling act can help us become more efficient and do better work, which was the point of multitasking in the first place. Now if youâÄôll excuse me, I have a statistics test to study for and the Simpsons is on.


John Grimley welcomes comments at [email protected]