Multitasking is Killing Your Brain

In the spirit of having a Focused Frugal February, I wanted this week’s Money in the Media Monday to start off with a topic that we can all relate to: multitasking. Today’s article from Medium is called “Multitasking is Killing Your Brain.” While, this article is from 2018, it is still extremely relevant.

Mulittasking Isn’t Real

The key argument made by MIT neuroscientist, Earl Miller is that we are never actually multitasking. Our brains only focus on one item at a time. That’s just how they are made. Every time we multitask, we are just switching our main focus from one item to the next.

When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.

Earl Miller, MIT Neuroscientist

The Dangers of Trying to Multitask

Dopamine Hit Havens

Remember how good it feels to cross something off your To Do List? Even if it’s something small? This is the dopamine hit that you’ve caused your mind to get hooked on. By jumping around to these small tasks like sending that email/tweet/text in between working on your longer and more difficult task, you give yourself the feeling of accomplishment when you still haven’t moved the needle on the one task that mattered. By doing this, you slowly remove your ability to focus on long, challenging tasks.

I’ve noticed this in my own life. When working through a study or larger project, I will constantly do smaller, unrelated tasks along the way to break up the actual important task. I’ve gotten myself hooked to those small dopamine hits that come with the small wins. What I’m really doing though is making the one task that mattered take much longer than it should if I just focused on it.

Lower Quality Work AND Lower IQ

With your mind jumping back and forth from one thing to another, your thoughts become scattered and it shows in the final product that you produce. Frequent multi-taskers (yours truly included here), have more trouble organizing thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information because the brain is constantly being fed irrelevant information in the form of these other tasks.

Additionally, the University of London conducted a study showing that multitasking can lower your IQ the equivalent amount of losing a full night’s sleep.

Adding to Our Stress

There’s enough in the world to be stressed about without adding further stress to already cluttered minds. The constant change in task increases the production of cortisol to the brain, which causes stress. This leaves you with the feeling of being mentally exhausted, possibly without even completing any “real” tasks.

Things like checking email or text messages are the main items that cause this stress uptick. It gives the illusion that there is still so much to do, and you haven’t even finished that first task yet. So, you think “might as well take care of some of these smaller items first and then I’ll jump back into this.” Feeding more irrelevant information to your brain and getting you even farther away from completing that first, actually important task.

Not Just a One Time Hit

While you may think that you will only momentarily take the hit and your focus will return once the flurry of activity is over, that’s not necessarily the case. While the evidence that there are changes in the brain’s function and density is not complete, there are still other long term effects of multitasking. Not only will the drop in your quality of work potentially affect your career, but your brain will form bad habits. Focusing is a skill and multitasking is the exact opposite way to hone that skill.

Focused Frugal February

You might be thinking, “What did this have to do with my February budget?” Everything. The majority of budget challenges are “no spend” or just generically about, “being more frugal.” While they can work for some, I find that if I try to focus on every aspect of my budget, I get nothing done. I already have 100 things in my head at all times, if I have multiple bad spending habits, I can’t force myself to break them all in one month.

Trying to force yourself to under-spend on everything can cause the following:

  • Spikes of spending before or after the challenge (eliminating the bonus of under-spending during the challenge)
  • Feelings of deprivation
  • Becoming overwhelmed (see stress above) and giving up

The point of working towards frugality is to create sustainable spending that doesn’t actually cause you to feel like you’re sacrificing anything. If you cut out your shopping trips, the expensive cuts of meat you usually buy, reduce the number of date nights out AND cut cable all in one month, you could easily feel deprived of many of the things to which you’ve become accustomed. Instead, take this month to pick ONE category, say grocery shopping (to be discussed this Friday) and work on reducing the cost of food without reducing the quality. Once that is nailed down, work on your next category.

Or to sum up this entire post into one line:

Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.

Ron Swanson, Parks & Rec

Have you felt the negative effects of multitasking? Are you working to eliminate the distractions that promote it? What has worked for you? Let me know in the comments below!