Are you stressed? Discover if multitasking could be the cause.
With today’s hectic pace, multitasking is a way of life for many of us. Although it may seem logical to assume that taking care of several tasks at once will make us more productive, researchers are discovering that there can be some significant downsides to living our lives this way.
Some thrive—most don’t
For some people, alternating between tasks can be an effective way to stay fresh and keep the mind active. However, we’re not all wired to work that way.
“Some people thrive on multitasking, but most people I’ve spoken with feel overwhelmed with all the demands of today,” says Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and university lecturer. “Multitasking is a symptom of people’s need for constant stimulation. It’s become part of our norm.”
Studies show that trying to cram more productivity into our overscheduled days isn’t necessarily healthy.
Multitasking can create stress and sap our productivity, finds a Stanford University study. Not only that, but research from the University of Sussex in England found it may be associated with lower grey matter density in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to emotional control and decision-making.
“We can get so overwhelmed that we’re immobilized in the face of all these things that we have to do,” says Jessie Langlois, a Vancouver-based registered clinical counsellor.
When multitasking involves a screen or screens—for instance, checking email, scrolling through Facebook, texting, or watching TV before bed—it can also disrupt our sleep and hinder real-world social connections.
“When you get so wired and so connected to your devices, not only are you being disconnected from your own internal states, but you’re also being disconnected socially,” Amitay says.
Some multitasking may be unavoidable—after all, countless job descriptions cite it as an important skill—but there are ways to multitask while minimizing the unhealthy consequences. Read on for expert tips.
Set realistic expectations
“Multitasking can be done effectively, but you have to make sure you’re allowing yourself enough time to complete a task instead of just jumping all over the place,” says Tamara Lechner, a happiness expert and meditation instructor based in Victoria, BC.
Overestimating our ability to multitask could have much more dire consequences beyond creating stress. We know that texting while driving is unsafe—and illegal in all provinces—but a recent survey by the Canadian Automobile Association found that nearly a quarter of Canadians admitted to reading or sending a text message while driving.
“It’s important to recognize when you’re driving that vigilance is the priority,” Langlois says. “Emails [and texts] can wait.” While you’re waiting in line at the grocery store might be a more appropriate time to multitask by answering a text or email, she adds.
Stop glorifying busyness
Some of the pressure to multitask comes from outside forces and some of it is self-inflicted, but it’s important to distinguish between productive busyness and busyness for its own sake. “It can be easy to adopt a mentality of just being busy,” Langois says, “where it doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you’re busy.”
While it’s true that failing to meet deadlines at work could cost you your job, skipping the school bake sale or letting laundry pile up for an extra day isn’t a make-or-break scenario. Challenge the notion that you should be all things to all people and focus on the essentials.
Even workplace busyness could be dialed down to a more manageable, sustainable level. “You always have resources to set limits,” Langois says. “Whether it’s co-workers or managers in a job situation or friends or family at home, people are willing to help.”
Find other sources of satisfaction
Why does technology seem so addictive? “[When] checking emails or news updates, there’s a dopamine surge,” Amitay says. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates pleasure to the brain, so when we get a Facebook “like” or an email, or we reach a new level in a game, it actually does bring us a small dose of happiness. (In fact, many video games and email inboxes may be intentionally designed to elicit that reaction on a subconscious level.)
But if you’re constantly checking in online and finding it hard to concentrate on other things, Lechner says you can gradually retrain your brain to get satisfaction in ways other than through emails or “likes.” “Smiling at people creates the same chemical release,” she says.
Taking a break from technology, for example, by going camping where there’s no reception, can help curb that impulse to be constantly connected. “Removing yourself from that stimulation, after a certain time, you’re not going to check emails or have mobile devices,” Amitay says, “but you may have withdrawal symptoms.”
While different personalities process stress and manage multitasking differently, Lechner says, “you have to decide if it’s a useful habit or if it’s preventing you from living your life.”
Herbs to help you stress less
Nontoxic herbs called adaptogens are thought to help curb stress. Here’s a look at several options to consider with your health care practitioner.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
A 2009 study found that this herbal medicine, along with dietary counselling and deep breathing relaxation techniques, could help improve quality of life for those with moderate to severe anxiety. As well, a 2014 review of trial results demonstrated ashwagandha’s usefulness in treating anxiety.
Research has shown rhodiola has an antifatigue effect in patients suffering from stress-related fatigue. And a systematic review of clinical trials showed evidence of rhodiola’s effectiveness on physical and mental performance and certain mental health conditions.
A 2010 study of healthy women found that the group who took a combination of rhodiola, Schisandra chinensis, and Eleutherococcus senticosus exhibited better attention and boosted their accuracy and speed during stressful cognitive tasks.