In a society where we are increasingly expected of us, a greater ability to reconcile private life and work and a greater predisposition to constantly adapt to technological and social changes, it is not surprising that many of people believe that they are not enough. Today it seems that even sitting down to eat with the family is a waste of time, that the best and most effective thing is to peck at something in front of the computer while reading the news or taking notes in the diary. ; something similar happens with sleep and rest times, which become increasingly stuck blocks of time in the agenda.
The idea that throughout the day we have to deal with several fronts at the same time, express our physical and mental capacities to combine the execution of tasks and thus cover more in everything we do. Multitasking, the ability to do two or more things at the same time, seems to be the wild card we pull over and over again to try to achieve everything we set out to do. But… Is this a viable way to face our problems and our responsibilities?
The answer is complex, because while it is true that in certain circumstances we can learn to perform two different types of actions at the same time, in many cases, multitasking is harmful and works against us. Let’s see why.
What is multitasking?
What is meant in psychology and in cognitive science in general by multitasking is the ability to divide the attention at several points to take care of various tasks at the same time. It is an innate ability that the vast majority of human beings possess due to the mental flexibility that characterizes our species.
However, it has its limits and it was not designed by evolution to make us fully capable of doing more than two things at once; after all, our mental abilities are based on the functioning of the brain, and the brain is not omnipotent; he is constrained by the amount of material resources at his disposal and the time granted to him to work.
So, the main thing is to know that even if we can do several things at the same time up to a certain point, this way of behaving is only useful in certain situations and has drawbacks of which we must be aware.
The negative aspects of multitasking
These are the main risks and negative effects of multitasking.
1. It may be harder for us to fall asleep.
When we do multiple things at the same time, what’s really happening in our brain is that multiple neural networks are activated at the same time, causing our nervous system to work at full speed, so it stays more active than normal. Therefore, if we perform sustained multitasking for a significant period of time, our neurons will readjust their rhythms of activity and remain alert even when we have stopped caring about these tasks, since the degree of nerve activity usually does not change drastically within minutes. And that can be a problem if it’s close to bedtime. In other words: we go to bed with a more active brain than normal, which gives rise to problems falling asleep.
2. It’s less efficient
Typically, when we divide our attention between multiple tasks at once, we pay less attention to completing each one; That’s why hardly anyone can do complex actions with each hand at the same time, like writing and painting. The more it costs us to do something, the more attention it demands, and when we already dominate it, we are able to do it almost without thinking about it; however, we will always be better at what we can devote our full attention to. Therefore, when we multitask we are slower and the results tend to be worse.
3. It stresses us out
When we do two actions at the same time and one or more of them is very monotonous, we usually come to a point where we have to make decisions; in this sense, we have seen that arriving at the moment of choosing between several options while having divided our attention very quickly generates stress in us, which is not only unpleasant, but affects our emotional balance and it makes us “block” without knowing what to do more easily.
4. It makes us more irritable
If doing two things at the same time is already intense, the fear of other people interfering is even more uncomfortable. Consequently, hostile or passive-aggressive reactions are more common when we are engaged in multitasking, becauseFrom our point of view, someone who talks to us or asks us something is an obstacle or something that makes us lose sight of what we were doing (and putting a lot of effort into).
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- Kim, C.; Cilles, SE; Johnson, NF; Gold, Brian T. (2012). General domain and domain preferential brain regions associated with different types of task switching: a meta-analysis. Mapping the human brain, 33(1): pp. 130 – 142.
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- Mayer, RE, & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1): pp. 43 – 52.