Does multitasking make you stupid?


By Gina Burgess

When you Google that question, you get millions of results. It seems that lots of psychologists and MDs have opinions on this topic and most agree that we should all avoid multitasking like the plague.

Some use the well-known computer freeze as an example that multitasking can get you into trouble. Actually, the way a computer works is an excellent example of single-tasking. Your computer—phone, laptop, desktop, etc.—will do only one task at a time albeit in nanoseconds rather than seconds. No matter how much faster, slimmer, and aesthetically pleasing a computer is, it still only does one task at a time. (As someone just pointed out, computers with multi-cores actually do multitask, but each core can only do one thing at a time.)

The fact is, the human brain is an expedient, complex, and fantastic computing device. We are capable of doing enormous multifaceted computations in image processing and intuitive calculations where logic T-bones hunches. So, maybe stupid is not the correct word.

There are tasks such as running and consuming oxygen at the same time that qualify as multitasking.  Perhaps even drinking coffee and reading qualify. But let’s face it; you can’t hold a cup of coffee and type at the same time. Writing and listening to music may be multitasking, but can you tell me the names of all the songs you listened to when writing the last chapter of your book? That is if you listen to music while writing.

Years ago, Randy Ingermanson wrote in his ezine about talking on the phone, consuming oxygen, and watching ducks build snowmen. You can do a lot of things without thinking about it. But if you’re talking on the phone and suddenly you see ducks building snowmen outside your window, and your consciousness acknowledges what you are seeing, your phone conversation will take a sudden and dramatic shift if you are like most people.

This means that your focus shifts to what your brain is either concentrating on or trying to make sense of, therefore multitasking may be a misnomer. Is it possible to concentrate on more than one thing at a time? You won’t reach for your coffee cup without first thinking, “I want a sip of coffee.”

A computer can do a thousand things in one second. It might seem like it is doing all those things at one time, but it isn’t. It is always doing things in steps (if this, then this). The human brain is the same. Finding time to write can contribute to a lack of focus while writing because authors try to juggle life while pursuing our passion of writing. If you are writing as a professional, your focus is crucial for a professional output (if you don’t believe me, just read July 29th’s newsletter).

My mom is legally blind and elderly, so she lives with me. From the time I was a small child, my mom’s voice could penetrate deep into anything I was doing (except when I was reading Gone with the Wind). When I’m talking on the phone, or watching TV, or writing, or trying to focus on anything, if Mom says something, my whole consciousness is focused on what she is saying. I might not hear the words, but nor do I hear anything else. It’s like my computer brain freezes and everything is a garbled message. Focus is destroyed.

Here are some things that most every article I read agreed upon:

  1. Trying to multitask slows down your brain’s cognitive ability as much as 20% -30%
  2. An interruption can cost you as long as 20 minutes of lost focus. Considering it may take your brain as long as 10 – 20 minutes to get into a deep focus, interruptions can keep you from ever getting into a deep focus state.
  3. Studies show that multitasking cost you IQ points – even as much as 15 IQ points. One study showed that when men multitasked, it dropped their IQ to the level of an eight-year-old child. (Oh, the jokes that fill my brain ?)
  4. In another study when people tried to juggle email messages and/or chat while working they lost the same amount of IQ points as if they’d missed a night’s sleep.

A story in Inc. said, “Multitasking makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information, and it reduces the efficiency and quality of our work.”

So, is this why so many books have more backstory than needed? Is it why characters are more like caricatures than well-developed, believable characters? Is it why some editing is not as high quality as it should be?

What’s the remedy?

Turn off your computer notifications—Facebook, Twitter, incoming emails. The world will not come to a screeching halt (like God did for Joshua in chapter 10) if you don’t answer an email or read a social media post from one of your chums.

Shut down other applications that may tempt you to divert your focus. Solitaire anyone? Turn off your cell phone, or put it under a pillow in another room. Unplug your land line. Use some kind of white noise that drowns out the background noise (kids playing, husband singing, wife homeschooling, Mom talking on the phone, etc.) whatever works for you.

Then write.

You can get a lot done in an hour if you have uninterrupted focus on what you are writing or researching. So why are you reading this and drinking coffee? Go! Write!

8 thoughts on “Does multitasking make you stupid?

  1. A fascinating post, and, I suspect, very true. I’ve personally found that when I’m left entirely alone when writing, I really get into the groove, but if husband is on his computer in the same room, and he keeps on interrupting me, i don’t get lost in the story the same.
    Similarly when cooking a big meal. I need to do things one at a time if I’m to be efficient. Prepare the meat ready to cook, then prepare the potatoes and veg before starting on the dessert. (Depending on what the dessert is, of course. It might have to be started earlier.) Then the cooking is efficient.

  2. You know, Viv, I found the same thing. Years ago when in school, I tried to do homework while listening to the radio. My mind kept wandering with the interruptions. Had to turn it off. On the other hand, instrumental music helped me to settle down and concentrate even better.
    The cooking thing is the same thing. You just can’t chop veggies for a salad AND stir up the dressing at the same time.

  3. So true, Gina and Viv! In fact I cannot even listen to music while writing because I trained in oboe, piano and voice for so many years that I get sucked into the music totally and cannot write a coherent sentence! All the years I’ve been writing, I got my best ideas with NO sensory input: darkness with only a candle, bath with candle (before our worst drought in a century hit the Cape and now only brief showers allowed!). Oh, the bliss of silence! Music, though, can be very helpful when one hits a block. It’s a direct link to the subconscious and a safer one than alcohol. When I hit a block I play the kind of music that the mode of my story needs at that time and – presto! the action unfolds before my eyes! Thanks for the chat!

  4. I didn’t know South Africa was having such a bad drought! We’ll be praying for rain 🙂
    I do agree with the blissful silence, Cicely. Right now as I work, I usually hear the soft rumble of one of my kitty cats, the breeze of the fan, and the rhythmic click of my laptop keys. It’s extremely peaceful, and that promotes a deep focus state for me.

  5. I have a bit of a different viewpoint on this. I have ADD and it helps me to multitask so I can trick parts of my brain into focusing on my writing. Does that make any sense? I did enjoy the article.

    Nate D. Burleigh

  6. Good, point, Nate! I have another friend who had ADD and he did the same thing. I didn’t even think about that when researching the article. Thanks for pointing that out.
    Yesterday I was trying to focus on getting the newsletter done and there were so many interruptions that I got really upset. I didn’t even mention that our emotions can certainly destroy our concentration as well.

  7. Brilliant. I believe every word is true. Multitasking is neither efficient nor intelligent, and trying to do everything and be everything to everyone, while getting all the information (some of it inane and repetitive anyway) that is available online, destroy not only our writing but our lives in general. We should take a deep breath, and STOP the madness.

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