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Here's Why Multitasking is a Bad Idea

Multitasking leads to howlers at work, creates stress, and makes you an underperformer.

Do you talk, e-mail, instant message, and listen to iPod, all at once? If so, may we have your attention for a few minutes, please?

Our brains have an operating system that is different from the one on computer. A typical operating system can switch and bounce between different tasks in a matter of nanoseconds. However, only a single thought can pulse through our brains at any moment. As such, multitasking, performing two unconnected, unrelated tasks at the same time, creates stress, lowers productivity, messes up thinking, leads to howlers, and contrary to popular belief, consumes more time than you would have spent on a task.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” The New York Times quotes David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, as saying. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Following are the reasons multitasking may not be a good idea after all.

1. Productivity Tanks
It is simply not possible for the brain to process too many unrelated tasks simultaneously. The human brain teems with hundred billion neurons. Hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections fire in the brain, making it the most wonderful organ in the whole cosmos. However, it cannot process two unconnected things at the same time.

“But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” The New York Times quotes René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, as saying.

Hence, when you multitask, your productivity suffers noticeably.

2. Multitasking Is Not a Time-Saver
It is a common belief that multitasking saves time, or at least we can pack a load of work into a period of time. However, experts say it is an illusion.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” The New York Times quotes Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author of a study into the effects of multitasking.

In this study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports, or entertainment Web sites.

“If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too."

3. It Leads to Lack of Analytical Skills
Multitasking can make people, especially students, study superficially.

“They develop a more superficial style of study and may not learn material as well. What they get out of their study might be less deep," the Washington Post quotes Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who co-authored a study that examined multitasking and brain activity, as saying.