Wholeness Healing Today

Gift Yourself and Your Brain this Season – Do One Thing at a Time

As November and December sneak up on us, we may find ourselves resorting to list making and multitasking in an effort to get it all done.  Before you begin to juggle too many balls in the air, you might want to know that multitasking sounds good in theory, but really isn’t so good for your brain or you! Nor is it efficient. So let’s look at what multitasking does for you and how you might not want to enter your November and December time period with increasing an already overloaded terrain for multitasking.  Because of the onslaught of social media, texting, emailing, smart phones, etc., there have been more and more studies done regarding what is really good for the brain regarding multitasking.

Studies show that multitasking is less productive than doing one thing at a time.  Research from Stanford University found that people who were regularly interrupted with several streams of electronic information could not pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.  (Bradberry, 2014)  Older people struggled even more than younger ones in this area. Multitasking compromises working memory in people of all ages but older adults have an even harder time.  (Society for Neuroscience, 2013)

Those people who thought they were exceptional multitaskers, thinking they did it so well, were compared to others in the Stanford study.  The heavy multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking than those who were likely to do things one thing at a time.  Those heavy multitaskers had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information and were actually slower at switching from one task to another. The multitaskers were also found to have reduced their efficiency and the quality of their work.  (Bradberry, 2014)

Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the ability to perform both tasks successfully. Your brain is really just switching rapidly from one task to the other, not doing both at the same time. Not only does multitasking slow you down, it has the capacity to lower 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 males lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old-child. (Bradberry, 2014)

Studies also indicate that multitasking is actually changing the structures of our brains. Previously, it was thought that the cognitive impairment found from multitasking was temporary.  New research is suggesting this might not be the case.  Research from the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (even as simple as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains.  Less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex was found with those people that were high multitaskers. This is a region in the brain responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. This is the same area of the brain where your EQ (emotional intelligence) skills are processed.  Another predictor of success in your life. (Bradberry, 2014)

A different study found that the structure of the brain changes in the prefrontal cortex with multitasking. This is the area in the brain’s motivational system.  This area helps you focus your attention on a goal and coordinates messages with other brain systems to carry out the task.  It spans across both the right and left sides of the brain and when it is focused on one thing, both sides work together. However, when focused on two tasks at once, the sides work independently.  This was discovered by scientists at the Institut National de la Santé’ et de la Recherche Medicale (INSERM) in Paris while asking participants to complete two tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).  The results suggested that when there are two concurrent goals, the brain divides in half.  If there are two concurrent rewards for completing two tasks, then both sides of the brain were activated. When there were three tasks, however, the participants regularly forgot one of the three tasks they were asked to perform.  They also made three times as many errors as they had made when attempting only two tasks.  (Society for Neuroscience, 2013)

Along with all of this, there is the issue of what multitasking does to your body in the way of stress hormones.  Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain, cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.  It also creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop which rewards the brain for losing focus and for searching for external stimulation (e.g. checking your phone for new emails).  (Levitin, 2015)

Plus that rapid shifting from one task to the other in our multitasking state leads us to burn up the nutrients we need in our brain to stay on task causing us to feel exhausted and disoriented even if it is a short period of time we are doing this. This leads to cognitive and physical deficits.  (Levitin, 2015)

All this stimulus, this multitasking, leads us to a barrage of decision-making that is constant.  Should I text this person back right now?  Should I let it go?  Should I answer him in a certain way?  Do I take a break and check my email?  It appears that decision-making, small or large, is hard on our neural resources and uses up the same amount of energy regardless of the weight of the decision.  One of the first things to go, at this point, is impulse control.  This spirals into a depleted state, which after making lots of insignificant decisions, can set us up for truly making bad decisions about something important.  (Levitin, 2015)

So it appears there are many reasons to revamp our ways as we move further into our technological landscape.  I know there are days that I can’t find my way out of it as I do my electronic progress notes, scheduling, and then move into taking care of emails and sorting through relationship happenings through text messages on the side and then maybe taking time for a good old fashioned phone call with a real conversation.  But we do have control over how we manage it all. It first starts with being aware of what is happening. What the research is telling us is that we need to do it, one thing at a time.  We focus on what we are doing and then we move to the next. We maintain our mindfulness as best we can.  This might mean we put the phone down when we are having a conversation with someone. We look people in the eye.  We talk.  We don’t check our phones. We stay diligent.

If we haven’t taken on the discipline of being mindful with our technology, this may be the season to consider having a mindful November and December.  To do this, stay present in your moment.  Maintain your focus in the here and now.  When you think about checking that phone or looking for the latest sale on the internet, stay with your moment in the here and now.  Keep yourself disciplined to when you will allow yourself to respond to the phone alerts throughout your day.  Better yet, consider putting the phone on silent and checking it on your schedule versus the alert schedule.  Then observe how you feel when you give yourself the gift of being in your moment.  (After you get used to not having the phone being checked every minute of the day).  Take a breath.  Enjoy the time and people who are with you right here and right now.

Works Cited

Bradberry, T. (2014, October 08). Multitasking damages your brain and career,new studies suggest. Retrieved from Forbes.com.

Levitin,  D. (2015, January 18). Why the modern world is bad for your brain. Retrieved from Theguardian.

Society for Neuroscience. (2013, Oct 9). the multitasking mind. Retrieved from Brainfacts.org.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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