Trying To Do Too Much?
By Alexis Jetter
New Research Says Multitasking Actually Slows You Down. Here's How To Be
More Productive--And Less Crazed
Lisa Maxwell, 31, a fitness trainer and mother of three from Cookeville,
Tennessee, considers herself a master multitasker. She routinely answers her
children's homework questions while running on a treadmill, and she drills her
kids on spelling from a list she reads while driving them to school. Of course,
there is the occasional mess-up: Last summer, she was cooking, cleaning, and
helping her kids with their science projects when she noticed the house smelled
funny. "We had guests coming, so I'd sprayed what I thought was room
deodorizer," she says with a rueful laugh. "I'd done half the house
before I realized it was Pledge."
Most of us can relate. In fact, multitasking-starting one task before
finishing another, a kind of warp-speed juggling-feels like the only way to
power through our to-do list these days. Like the subtitle of psychiatrist
Edward Hallowell's new book, Crazy Busy, we are "Overstretched, Overbooked,
and About to Snap." But are we really getting more done? And at what
If you're reading this while doing something else, stop for a second.
Because new studies are proving that the old adage is true: You really can't do
two things at once-at least not well. And the research also shows something
most of us would never suspect: If you multitask relentlessly, you can
jeopardize your health in ways both large and small.
The idea of multitasking comes from computers, which appear to perform many
functions at the same time. But the analogy is misleading. Most computers flip
back and forth between tasks-and your brain operates in much the same way. It
is literally impossible to pay conscious attention to more than one thing at
once, notes Dr. Hallowell, a former Harvard Medical School instructor. So
"you end up paying conscious attention to several tasks in rapid
succession: making macaroni and cheese, unloading the dryer, feeding the
dog," he explains.
But switching between tasks wastes precious time because the brain is
compelled to restart and refocus. "Each time you have this alternation,
there's a period in which you'll make no progress on either task," says
David Meyer, Ph.D., director of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Lab at the
University of Michigan. "It's mental dead time." The result: It takes
longer to finish any one chore, and you don't do it nearly as well as you would
had you given it your full attention.
Good stress, bad stress
Multitasking, almost by definition, involves stress-which means the brain
signals the body to begin the rapid-fire release of the fight-or-flight hormone
cortisol. Of course, stress is not always a bad thing. You need your brain's
stress response to help you perform well under pressure, says Esther Sternberg,
M.D., author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions,
and a leading researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. It's what
gets you out of danger or past that deadline. But if you multitask continually,
Dr. Sternberg warns, "your brain and your body don't have time to recover
from that rush of cortisol. And that can make you sick."