Is Multitasking Stealing Your Thunder?

This week has been what I used to call in undergrad “Hell Week”–all the final exams were scheduled successively in a rather discouraging 1-2 punch.  It was exhausting when I was just entering my 20s living with little to no responsibilities in terms of taking care of another person.  Now?

Sweet fluffy lord…I really do wonder what my 21 year-old self ever complained about! Studying for final exams in medical school while raising teenagers, driving them to and fro, running a household, and celebrating a festival holiday? I question my life choices sometimes.  I keep telling myself that at least my classes are in English–mostly.

You don’t read my blog, however, to hear me whine.  I figured something out yesterday after I took my A&P II exam.  I noticed during the exam that I was calmer as compared to my Pathology exam.  I recalled necessary information faster, and I felt more confident.  I felt totally frenetic during my Pathology exam.  Granted, the Pathology exam was brutal.  It took me two hours to complete it, and I felt like part of my brain had been sucked out of ear during the essay section.  As far as I’m concerned, essay sections on science exams are mean.  The bullshit answer sounds like bullshit on a science exam as opposed to nonsense answers on liberal arts exams:

“Baudelaire’s depiction of the darkness inherent within the flowers represented his ultimate struggle with his own existence and that of his culture which makes sense as Sartre’s existentialist notions had resonated quite strongly with the French people generally and specifically with members of l’académie.”

I just made that up right now, and I bet I could sneak that by someone were I discussing French existentialist poetry.  That’s quality filler, man! Science filler material is a different matter altogether.  If you don’t answer the question with the correct information, it’s wrong even if you wrote out the entire periodic table from memory.  So, you really have to study and retain everything.

That’s where it got tricky for me.  I was studying, but the retention and recall were a problem.  Why? I refuse to blame it on being in my 40s.  I noticed that my retention and recall were much better during A&P than in Pathology.  Why? What made the difference?

I studied in absolute quiet for my A&P final when everyone was at school for that exam, and I was studying over the weekend for my Pathology exam when too much was going on.  I couldn’t find any peace.  In other words, I was multitasking, and current research shows that our brains are not designed for it:

“Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

A special skill?

But what if some people have a special gift for multitasking? The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers — those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance — were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.

Ouch.

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Multitasking lowers IQ

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.” (Why Smart People Don’t Multitask)

Yeah, I would say that a possibly 8 year-old version of myself tried to take that Pathology final exam after multitasking all weekend.  That’s why it was so difficult as opposed to yesterday’s Anatomy & Physiology exam which was challenging but doable.

I don’t have my scores back from my Pathology exam.  I can’t tell you if there was a differential between my performances, but I do know how I did on my A&P  final exam (the teacher likes to grade them on the spot–in front of you).  I owned that exam.  So there, brain!

All this is to say that we are far more successful when we focus on one thing at a time.  Sometimes we can’t.  I couldn’t last weekend, and it might very well show up in my final grade.  Worse than that, however, is that I may not have retained all the necessary information that I want and need.  There isn’t a damn thing I can do about it except go back and review what didn’t take.  The American lifestyle of “doing it all” is corrosive to our brain matter and neuronal connections.  If we make small changes accompanied with lifestyle changes and commit to focusing on one thing at a time, then we will actually be able to be more effective and, ironically, more productive.  It’s counterintuitive, but it’s proving to be true.

It is something to think about and perhaps aim for as we continue onward.

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4 thoughts on “Is Multitasking Stealing Your Thunder?

  1. Thank you for posting this! I’ve been trying to shift from multi-tasking to single-tasking. As Ron Swanson says, never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.
    There are also studies that show that playing certain classical music while studying will help with retention and recall. And, as with anything, there are studies that show there is no significant correlation. Anecdotally, I find that I am able to focus more on the task at hand when playing classical music, silence rattles around in my brain. Which tells me maybe I need to do more mindfulness exercises in silence.

  2. Welcome to my work life as a project manager. Besides my own multi-million euro project, I have 3 significant tasks on two other projects; working in an open plan office, with background chatter and frequent interruptions. I have to multi-task on a daily basis, but my Asperger brain does not cope well. Classical music does not help. My brain would readily find the melody, any counter-melody, and easily find a theme moving from instrument to instrument. (I am the only one in the household that cannot watch TV and read or write at the same time.) I do now have a white noise app for when I really need to block out distractions and concentrate. I notice that I cope better when people around me start to go home. When I was studying for my final exams I used to find a solitary desk in the university library close to an air conditioning vent. The monotonous noise helped me to concentrate. I did not know then why that was so helpful, but I do now.
    Fortunately, 30+ years of experience counts and I am still employable. It’s only in the last 2 years since my diagnosis that I have started to realise how differently some people’s brains function, and to recognise where I have difficulty, so that I can act accordingly.
    I do admire you for going back to studying again. I enrolled in an accounting and finance diploma course during my 30’s, but that and a full time job proved to be too much for me. I do hope that your pathology exam went well, dispute the multitasking weekend!
    By the way, I love your liberal arts filler. It reminds me of listening to my sons talking to each other; sounds like poetry, but don’t expect me to make sense of it.

    I’ll just continue making small changes, and see where that takes me.

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