What is multitasking?

Multitasking essentially means that you are trying to perform two or more tasks at the same time. Many people mistakenly believe that multitasking reflects a high level of cognitive ability and think that you should multitask to maintain your brain health (i.e., use it or lose it idea). In reality, our brains are not set up to multitask. We are designed to be “monotaskers,” that is, to focus on and complete one task at a time.

How does multitasking affect the brain?

What our brains are doing when we multitask is rapidly switching between tasks. This constant switching taxes our brain. It essentially tires it out and makes it less efficient. This particularly affects our ability to focus our attention in general, even when we are not multitasking. 

Multitasking makes us more distractible and prone to errors. For example, individuals rated as high media multitaskers (number of hours using multiple devices simultaneously, such as watching TV while also using a smart phone or tablet) showed poorer attention on cognitive tasks. 

Those individuals had to use more of their brain to complete the same task compared to low multitaskers. When you need to recruit more of your brain to complete a task, it means your brain is working less efficiently.

Are the effects of multitasking short-term or long-term?

The effects of multitasking are likely short-term, but there are no definitive studies to answer that question fully. One correlational study showed that individuals who are high media multitaskers have smaller brain volumes in an area of the brain known as the cingulate cortex, which is important for regulating emotions and behavior. However, it is unclear if multitasking causes permanent brain changes or if people with smaller volumes in this brain region are more likely to be drawn to multitasking.

Are there other health effects of multitasking? 

Multitasking temporarily increases stress levels which raises blood pressure and heart rate. Multitasking is also associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. These effects can be temporary, but chronically increased blood pressure and stress can have permanent effects on the brain by increasing risk for cerebrovascular disease and cognitive impairment. 

How can you minimize the effects of multitasking?

The only time you can truly multitask is if one of the tasks is fully automated, like walking on the treadmill. It’s okay to read a book and walk on the treadmill or fold laundry while watching television. But you should minimize “bad multitasking” to limit the risks to your brain and mood. Bad multitasking is trying to complete two tasks that require your attention at the same time, such as reading your email while attending a zoom meeting.

5 strategies to reduce your multitasking:

  1. Avoid switching between tasks. Work on one task for a set time for about 20 minutes, and then switch to another task.
  2. Schedule a time of day to check your email rather than checking it throughout the day.
  3. Limit distractions. Turn off email alerts or phone alerts while engaging in a task. Find a quiet place to work with limited interruptions. 
  4. Declutter your workspace. Visual clutter is distracting to your brain.
  5. Practice mindfulness, which means paying attention to what you are doing in the moment. This may help you catch yourself multitasking so that you can avoid it.

Ways to promote a healthy brain 

In addition to managing stress levels, there are general lifestyle factors that have been associated with brain health. They include:

  • engaging in regular exercise for 150 minutes per week, including both cardiovascular exercise and strength training
  • taking part in cognitively stimulating activities rather than passive activities, such as work, puzzles, hobbies, or games
  • staying socially connected to family and friends
  • adhering to a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet that has been shown to be a brain-healthy diet by reducing inflammation, maintaining blood glucose at a constant level, and being healthy for the heart and vascular system. This in turn can minimize vascular changes in the brain

Intervention for those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease

My colleague, Dr. Laura Korthauer, and I were recently funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging to develop a health intervention for people in mid-life who are at elevated risk for Alzheimer’s disease. It is called Tailored Education for Aging and Cognitive Health or TEACH study. 

We know that there are 12 modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, but most individuals do not take good care of their health. We will be conducting focus groups with individuals in mid-life to determine:

  • the best way to share their personal health risk
  • their health beliefs -- both behavioral tendencies and how their brain may be hard wired
  • how to motivate individuals to engage in and sustain healthy life behaviors as they age

You can learn more about this study by contacting Idania Arias at [email protected] or at 1-401-444-9061. For more information on the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center, please visit our website.

Jennifer E. Davis, PhD

Dr. Jennifer Davis is a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry in The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She performs neuropsychological evaluations for differential diagnosis and monitoring of memory disorders.