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Trying To Do Too Much?

Good stress, bad stress continued...

Here's why: Cortisol is also the body's most potent anti-inflammatory drug. And if too much of it is pumped out continuously, "your immune cells are not going to be able to fight infection when they need to," explains Dr. Sternberg. Cortisol overload, she adds, can contribute to serious medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

And that's not all: Over time, say experts, stress can kill neurons in precisely the area of the brain that multitaskers rely on: the prefrontal cortex, which helps you switch between tasks and stores key memories.

Finally, the stress of multitasking may also impair your ability to concentrate. "We've so trained ourselves to be ready for interruption that we're not paying attention to anything," Dr. Hallowell maintains. "The two things that people think they have these days-but don't-are attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Alzheimer's disease. They're just overloaded from a severe case of modern life."

Cell-phone peril

Dr. Hallowell's description would seem to apply to Michelle Silverman, who has turned multitasking into an extreme sport. Every weekday morning, Silverman, 33, a lawyer and new mother from central New Jersey, gets into her Volvo sedan, veers onto the highway, and pulls out her cell phone, BlackBerry, and breast pump. As she slides into traffic, Silverman punches out e-mail messages and holds a conference call with clients, while simultaneously affixing the pump to her right breast and plugging it into her car adaptor. "I know I'm not alone," says Silverman, referring to her behind-the-wheel high-wire act. "Why else would they make breast pumps with car adaptors?"

Yet multitasking behind the wheel is a very risky business. Last year, researchers at the University of Utah reported that attempting to navigate traffic while talking on a cell phone increases the chance of an accident 500 percent-making it at least as great a risk as driving drunk. While talking on a cell phone, the drivers in the study failed to notice even life-or-death cues such as red lights up ahead. And drivers who used a hands-free phone fared no better. That's because the problem isn't physical dexterity-it's focus. In the human mind, what you're thinking about takes precedence over what you're actually seeing or doing.

A distraction is to blame for nearly 80 percent of all traffic accidents, according to another recent study, this one sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And cell phones were the main culprit. (However, talking to a passenger while driving isn't nearly as risky, the Utah study's authors say, because passengers are likely to notice a change in the roadway and stop talking or call the driver's attention to it.)

So much for driving and cell phoning. But reality check: Is it ever OK to multitask? Actually, yes-when one of the tasks is so routine, you don't need to concentrate on it at all.

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