Science Says Multitasking Is Literally Draining Energy From Our Brains

We’re all guilty of it: sending messages while in a meeting, chatting on the phone while cooking dinner, playing Pokemon Go on the morning commute. We multitask because doing just one thing at a time feels wasteful; boring, even. It’s safe to say our society has been built on the idea of the multitasker (so much so that we’re even boasting about it on job applications) – but have we been misled? Is multitasking stopping us from properly focussing on the task at hand? Buckle up buddy, we’re about to drop some truth bombs.

The internet defines multitasking as “the human ability to perform more than one task or activity over a short period of time.” It’s a great trait to master and one that women are apparently a whole lot better at, a myth that has actually been backed up by real life science. So it’s a little surprising to find out that this coveted trait might be doing more harm than good.

News outlet Quartz recently shed some light on the the way we multitask, revealing that multitasking is actually draining the energy reserves in your brain.

How multitasking works

It’s important first to note how exactly our brains work when we’re multitasking – and in practice we’re not actually doing more than one thing at the exact same time. In fact, when we attempt to multitask, we’re quickly switching between two tasks at a time. How this is detrimental lies in the fact that all that switching is pretty exhausting for our brains – it’s actually using up oxygenated glucose in the brain, which in turn runs down the same fuel we need to focus on the task.


Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, told Quartz “that switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing.” So when you’re chugging down that second cup of coffee, think about what you actually spent your morning doing. Was it a mixture of checking emails, mindlessly scrolling Facebook and sipping on coffee? Therein lies the problem.

“Often, what you really need in that moment isn’t caffeine, but just a break,” Daniel says. “If you aren’t taking regular breaks every couple of hours your brain won’t benefit from that extra cup of coffee.”

So what’s the solution?

Multitasking can often result in a lot of wasted time spent switching between contexts, jobs and duties; this can often cause more errors due to insufficient attention. So then should we just ditch multitasking all together?

When people are interrupted, it often takes upwards of 23 minutes to return to their work and flow of productivity.

David says that the most efficient way to get through the working day is to take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours. These breaks allows for mind-wandering, and can be achieved by going for a walk, listening to music or reading, or just simply staring out the window. By taking these short breaks, most people find that when they return to their task, productivity is at a high – but keep in mind what exactly you’re doing in those breaks, as they might just be the problem.

Basically, social network browsing is a huge no-no. David says social media sites like Facebook or Twitter can produce more fractured attention, as you scroll from one thing to the next.


Say no to social media

A big part of the problem can be boiled down to social media’s tight grasp on our attention spans. Gloria Mark, a professor in the department of informatics at the University of California, says that when people are interrupted, it often takes upwards of 23 minutes to return to their work and flow of productivity. Many people will often do two tasks at once before going back to their original task – like scrolling Instagram on their phone while writing an article on their laptop (oops, guilty).

But it’s not all out fault, right? Aren’t we being conditioned to check our social media accounts and emails at timed increments during the day? Gloria agrees: “Whenever you check [your] email, every so often you get a hit, some great email received. That happens on a random schedule. In psychology that’s called random reinforcement and that’s enough to reinforce behaviour.” That random behaviour can often mean that after being constantly interrupted, Gloria says some people might develop a short attention span or begin to self-interrupt.

Not all hope is lost, however

Gloria says the solution is to give up on multitasking and set aside dedicated chunks of time for each task. Try only checking your email at 9am and then again at 12pm and 4pm; turn off all social media notifications and set aside a special “social media break” during the afternoon to check it all.

There’s also a bunch of online tools to help you with constant distractions: try White Noise for a distraction-free soundscape, the Self Control app to help you avoid distracting websites, and Strict Workflow which employs the Pomodoro Technique – work through 25-minute focused bursts, then reward yourself with a five-minute break.

And not all tasks were created equal

Hal Pashler, a psychology professor at UC San Diego, notes that not all multitasking attempts are draining – there’s those special tasks we can complete on ‘autopilot’ that are ripe for multitasking. Things like doing the laundry, painting your nails, going for runs – because you know how to do these things so well, you’ve effectively created space in your brain for processing new ideas, thoughts and tasks.

But if you attempt to do two challenging tasks simultaneously, this will lead to a productivity drop. Hal admits, “you can’t do two demanding, even simple, tasks in parallel,” so always keep an eye on what you’re attempting to do – if it’s too much and you’re seeing a drain in productivity, drop it.

h/t Quartz

Rebecca Russo is a freelance writer, editor, community radio dabbler, occasional hiker and celebrity autobiography enthusiast. She has written for online publications including Junkee, AWOL, Fashion Journal and Tone Deaf. Find her online here.