Why Multi–Tasking Can Damage Your Brain (And Your Career)

Why Multi–Tasking Can Damage Your Brain (And Your Career)


New studies show that multi-tasking kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Research conducted at Stanford University found that multi-tasking 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 multi-tasking? The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multi-task and their belief that it helps their performance.

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They found that heavy multi-taskers were actually worse at multi-tasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time because they had more trouble organising their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another. Ouch.

Multi-tasking 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.

Multi-Tasking and Brain Damage

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multi-tasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multi-tasked 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 multi-tasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.

Cognitive impairment from multi-tasking was believed to be temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains.

They found that high multi-taskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control.

While more research is needed to determine if multi-tasking is physically damaging the brain, it’s clear that it has negative effects.

Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained: “It is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

Learning from Multi-Tasking

If you’re prone to multi-tasking, this is not a habit you’ll want to indulge – it clearly slows you down and decreases the quality of your work.

Even if it doesn’t cause brain damage, allowing yourself to multi-task will fuel any existing difficulties you have with concentration, organisation, and attention to detail.

Multi-tasking in meetings and other social settings indicates low self- and social awareness, two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are critical to success at work. TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that 90% of top performers have high EQs.

If multi-tasking does damage the anterior cingulate cortex (a key brain region for EQ) research suggests it will lower your EQ in the process.

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So every time you multi-task you may be harming your performance now and damaging an area of your brain that’s critical to your future success at work.

Travis Bradberry
Award-winning co-author of the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart -- a consultancy that serves more than 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies and is a leading provider of emotional intelligence tests, training and certification.