We all occasionally wish we could get twice as much done in a day. In recent years, as the line between work and home life blurred beyond comprehension, that wish grew especially pronounced. This also enhanced the illusion that we could squeeze it all in if we just did a few more things at once
Multitasking isn’t new, but the era of remote work has made it feel more essential than ever. The only problem is, multitasking isn’t real. You may feel like you’re accomplishing multiple things at once, but you’re just bouncing back and forth between tasks, most likely doing each less efficiently — and potentially harming your mental health.
You may have a long list of your accomplishments as a world-renowned multitasker. But, chances are, you’re not one of the 2.5% of people who can do it well. And the rest of us must reckon with its ill effects and find a better way to get things done.
5 ways multitasking is bad for your mental health
The grand allure of multitasking is that it promises to help you get more done in less time. In reality, though, studies show that multitasking is not a great way to increase productivity. That, alone, is enough reason to stop trying to do it. But there are also plenty of examples of multitasking’s detrimental effects on our mental health.
1. It compromises executive brain function
On the surface, switching between tasks may appear straightforward — you pause one thing to do another. But what’s happening in your brain is far from simple. When you bounce between tasks, you put your brain’s executive control functions into overdrive.
These executive functions are the subconscious decisions your brain makes about how to approach any given situation or accomplish a specific task. These are critical processes, and they’re not meant to be constantly engaged. Just think about how you automatically tune others out when you’re reading an email. That demonstrates the brain’s natural inclination to focus on one task at a time.
According to the American Psychological Association, multitasking essentially asks your brain to constantly recalibrate in two key areas: goal shifting and rule activation. Every time you switch tasks, your brain has to shift into a new set of priorities for the new task. It also has to recall the rules for this new task and set the rules for the previous task aside.
This happens subconsciously in a fraction of a second, and it’s an essential process for shifting between the various things you do in a day. But when it repeatedly happens over short periods, the seconds add up, and your brain’s executive capacity wears down. Some research shows that it slows your productivity by as much as 40%.
2. You feel chronically stressed
This constant state of switching, coupled with feelings of frustration over a lack of productivity, can lead to a continuous feeling of stress. Studies show a strong correlation between stress levels and computer multitasking, particularly among college students. You feel like you’re not getting enough done or are distracted by social media, so you try to multitask more, which makes you feel more stressed that you can’t keep up… and so the cycle continues.
Stress can harm your mental health, but that’s not all. Chronic stress can create many problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. If you’re prone to perfectionism, this stress can lead to anxiety that you never live up to your own standard.
Stress serves a purpose, but it’s meant to help you handle immediate threats. Your body wasn’t made to stay in a state of heightened awareness all the time. Ultimately, the psychological symptoms manifest themselves physically if you don’t find a way to deal with the root cause — in this case, multitasking.
3. It can contribute to depression
As noted above, the stress of multitasking can lead to depression, and this is a significant mental health problem in its own right. Media multitasking has shown a particularly strong correlation with depression and anxiety. This uniquely modern tendency to simultaneously scroll social media, watch a show and browse the web is associated with noticeable dips in mood.
Depression is about much more than being in a dour mood, though. Ongoing depression can be detrimental to your health in many ways. It can cause joint pains, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. It’s even been associated with heart problems.
4. It can kill your motivation
We give into the impulse to multitask because we think it will help us be more productive. But the more it does the opposite, the more it will drain your motivation. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels day in and day out, never catching up, it creates a feeling of futility. Before long, you don’t feel motivated to do the work you originally set out to do.
This motivation-draining effect isn’t only associated with traditionally productive tasks, either. Once again, media multitasking (the consumption of multiple media forms simultaneously) leads to similar problems, and research has hinted at why. One study, in particular, correlated media multitasking with lower gray matter (concentration of neurons) density in the brain. The affected areas are particularly linked with emotion and motivation, meaning too much simultaneous media use can diminish your brain’s motivation capacity.
5. Your memory can suffer
Finally, multitasking can also affect your memory. Here again, studies focus on media multitasking, but that’s relevant to other situations because we do so much of our work within digital media these days. We also attempt to work on our laptops while watching a show or checking on social media in the background.
In numerous studies, heavy multimedia multitaskers perform poorly in comparison to light multitaskers on a variety of simple tests. These tests are designed to assess working memory and the ability to sustain attention, both of which are noticeably lacking in HMMs, at least when it comes to low-demand tasks. Scientists are still studying this correlation to determine why it exists, but many theorize that the constant short-range attention spurts involved in multitasking gradually diminish our capacity to store information in working memory for long periods.
How to break your multitasking habit
Even when you know that multitasking is bad for your mental health, it’s not easy to stop. In today’s online world, it’s the only way that many people know how to operate. But, with some effort, you can break the cycle. Try these four things:
Rethink your approach: Instead of trying to get everything done at once, shift your attention to one task at a time. Determine what tasks are the most important and do those first, setting everything else aside. Try this in short 15 to 20 minute bursts at first, then build on it.
Cut out distractions: When it comes to harming your mental health, media multitasking may be the worst form of all. Resist the urge to keep email and social media open in the background or to try to catch the game while you work. Give yourself focused, distraction-free times to get things done. You may be surprised to find you have more time for those distractions later.
Try using mindfulness: A mind that’s overloaded with multitasking is distracted and inattentive to the present moment. Mindfulness aims to cultivate the exact opposite state. Through practices such as meditation, focused breathing, and simply giving your complete attention to your thoughts and surroundings, you can learn to be more present to yourself, your work and those around you. Mindfulness has even been shown to rewire the brain and increase gray matter. Try a few simple breathing exercises to get started.
Declutter your space: A cluttered workspace creates a cluttered mind and heightens your sense of stress. It certainly doesn’t help you to focus on one thing at a time. If you’re unsure where to start in your journey away from multitasking, clearing off your desk may be a good first step.
Too long; didn’t read?
In today’s hurried and hyperconnected world, we’re driven to multitask for many reasons. Sometimes you just can’t sort out the distractions. In other cases, perfectionism may drive you toward relentless productivity. But you don’t have to be productive every moment of every day.
Trying to accomplish everything at once isn’t good for your mental health, and there are healthier ways to get things done. Next time you feel like working on two things at once, take a deep breath and try a new approach.