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The Surprising Impact of Multitasking on Mental Health

We’ve known for a while (at least a decade, according to one Harvard study) that multitasking is a big no-no. We lose 40 percent productivity when we try to do more than one thing at the same time. But an issue nobody is talking about is how multitasking is actually making us less happy. In a world where multitasking is the new normal (who hasn’t tried to brush their teeth and text at the same time?) this scientific discovery is more important than ever. 

Let’s break this concept down one point at a time (single-tasking, get it?) Here’s what MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller (summarized by author Scott Maultz) says about trying to focus on two things at once: “Switching from task to task, you think you’re paying attention to everything around you at once. But you’re actually not. You’re just switching between those tasks very rapidly (a phenomenon known as ‘task-switching’).”

In other words, both tasks are fighting to use the same part of the brain, but the reality is that the brain only has room for one point of focus at a time. So, even though it feels as though you’re getting a lot done, the continual switching back and forth between the two tasks will result in a net loss of productivity (and often accuracy, as these studies are showing that you’re more likely to make errors while multitasking.) 

Switching from task to task, you think you’re paying attention to everything around you at once. But you’re actually not.

If the promise of productivity is not enough of an incentive to put down your phone and focus on one thing at a time, consider this second discovery: multitasking is negatively impacting your mood. Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert worked with 2,250 subjects to see how often our minds wander from the task at hand. They found that the answer is 47 percent of the time. The worst part? The researchers found that whenever the subjects were distracted, they reported an increase in unhappiness (in fact, this prompted the psychologists to title the study “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.”)

So, the more distracted we get, the more unhappy we become. If allowing our minds to wander causes a decrease in happiness, imagine the long term impact of the habit of multitasking. 

All signs point to embracing the present moment. Embrace single-tasking: Put down your phone. Focus on one thing at a time. If you catch your mind wandering, redirect it back to the thing you’re working on. You’ll thank yourself for it when you’re a more productive, happier you.

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