Why Multitasking is Killing You

There’s a powerful urge in many of us to multitask. To balance plates. To juggle balls. To answer messages while speaking on the phone while eating while crossing the road while…

Turns out, it’s not good for us. In fact, it’s really very bad.

Complex multitasking – doing more than one task that requires our attention – keeps our fight or flight response activated, meaning we maintain a state of stress. Prolonged stress causes wear and tear on the body, including weakening our immune system, destroying cells in the parts of the brain responsible for executive function, learning and memory, and even speeding up of the aging process through the shortening of telomeres (the ‘caps’ on the ends of our chromosomes that stop them from unraveling, their length being a biological marker of age).

As Director of the UC San Diego Centre for Mindfulness Allan Goldstein says,

“the complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress-related diseases.”

The multitasking paradox

Life for many is getting faster and busier, and multitasking can seem like the only way to get things done. The problem is, it doesn’t actually help. An activated amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fight or flight, hijacks our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) so that our thinking is distorted and decision-making less effective. That’s why multitasking makes us less productive, and chronic multitaskers are actually worse at multitasking, says Dr Clifford Nass. Forget the popular view that we’re adapting to the new information age; we’re not.

And here’s the real stinger: multitasking is a myth. Our brains are not parallel but serial processors, so we literally cannot do more than one complex task at the same time. When we think we are doing several things simultaneously we are, in fact, switching our attention rapidly from one activity to another. This creates ‘attentional blinks‘, momentary losses of attention, and so in trying to do several things at once we make a dog’s dinner of everything and end up frazzled to boot.


The cure for multitasking is _uni_tasking. Simply, only do one thing at a time. Give any single task your full attention instead of trying, and failing, to do several things at once. It doesn’t mean going slowly or ignoring competing demands; the key is efficient attention switching. If the phone rings, stop emailing and focus on the call, then switch back to the email. By giving a task our full attention, we experience better productivity, better memory, better learning, better health.

Focusing attention helps our pre-frontal cortex do its job as the brain’s control centre for memory, learning, reasoning, planning, dealing with emotions, impulse control and communication. What’s more, being singularly absorbed in the moment generates brain cells in the PFC, hippocampus (the centre for long term memory) and insular (the part of the brain responsible for awareness of our internal physical and mental states). It also stimulates telomere maintenance, slowing down the very process of aging.

Perhaps the best news is that unitasking also shrinks the amygdala. When we’re perpetually distracted, we suffer from attention deficit trait, aggravating the amygdala and activating the ‘default mode network‘, a state of worrying, mind wandering, mental chatter and negative self-judgement. The problem with this is that default mode is a risk factor in stress, anxiety, depression and alzheimers, and associated with reduced cognitive performance. We definitely want a diminutive amygdala.

We need to switch off the hyper-vigilant amygdala by moving from the default mode to the ‘attentional network’, which we do when we bring our attention to the task at hand. We already know what it feels like to focus, free from distractions. To be in the zone. In the moment. This is how we feel when we’re immersed in something enjoyable, like a hobby or compelling work. It’s pure bliss. The remedy for the amygdala’s catastrophising, therefore, is to be fully engaged with what we do.


If you’re beginning to wonder, yes, unitasking is a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice (or meditation) is when we observe our sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement, gently bringing the attention back to the experience of being in the present moment when our minds wander, which they will.

We can live mindfully throughout the day, not just in the twenty minutes set aside for meditation; we do it by approaching tasks with our full attention.

Once thought to be the preserve of an alternative minority, mindfulness has swung firmly into the mainstream with a robust empirical basis showing significant positive effects are already evident after eight weeks of meditating for a few minutes a day.

Clearly, mindfulness is not some hippy dippy bullshit. It is the antidote to stress and the cornerstone of productivity. Try unitasking, and watch the mercury dip.

Learn more about unitasking and mindfulness

Watch (TEDx): Mindfulness – defeating distraction and amplifying awareness

Study (free via Future Learn): Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance

Read now: The health benefits of meditation and being mindful, by Dr Craig Hassed

Read later: Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

Meditation app (free): Smiling Mind

Research and resources: Centre for Mindfulness

Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash

A sceptic’s tentative foray into meditation

Written for the Growthseekers blog in 2017:

I keep hearing about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, but I’m a sceptic at heart. When I’m riddled with worries, I feel that trying to ‘fix’ the feelings with mental effort is the only way to calm the f*”k down.

But is doesn’t work. It hasn’t been working for me in, well, forever.

Daniel Goleman, best known for his work on emotional and social intelligence, gives a clear insight into why meditating might be a better approach than doing battle with anxiety, in his 2007 talk at Google. To understand his point, let’s first have a crash course in brain science.

Lizard brain

The amygdala, often referred to as our ‘lizard brain’, formed early in brain evolution. Needless to say, it’s pretty primitive. It’s responsible for ‘fight, flight or freeze‘, meaning it is triggered by threats to our well-being and doesn’t stop to ‘think’.

The amygdala keeps us safe: if you hear the screech of tyres nearby, the amygdala throws the switch so that all your senses are heightened and your muscles are primed to get you out of there.

The problem is, many of our contemporary ‘threats’ are abstract in nature. We’re unlikely to be stalked by a tiger, but we probably fear job loss, financial insecurity, the breakdown of a relationship, or living a life unfulfilled.

Unfortunately, the amygdala doesn’t differentiate. The alchemy of our individual biographies has distilled in each of us a unique brew of knee-jerk beliefs and fears so that when something triggers one of them, like Pavlov’s dogs, we respond on cue with a stress reaction.

In physiological terms, our hearts race, our bodies are flooded with Adrenocorticotropic hormones and our minds fixate on the threat. Even the way our brain prioritises information changes. “It changes the hierarchy within memory so that we remember and think about only what pertains to the thing that’s scaring us”, says Goleman.

No escape? Meditate

Clearly then, no amount of thinking your way out of anxiety is going to work. Yet it seems that many people of us continue this merry dance with our reptilian grey matter. Alternatively, we seek distraction, which can indeed be helpful – socialising, exercise, reading, comedy and so on can really take your mind off your worries. But you know they’ll be back, and worse.

The more often we experience a high stress reaction, the more prone we are to another onslaught. This is due to the neuroplasticity of our brain’s wiring, which is where repeated experience lays down stronger and stronger neural pathways. In other words, it’s how we learn.

This is where meditation comes in. But first, a little more on the brain. Our amygdala is moderated by the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), which manages emotion by using all available information to decide if a threat is really a threat. Using neuroimaging, Richard Davidson found that when people feel the familiar overwhelm of anxiety, the right side of the PFC is firing. But when people feel pumped but anxiety-free, it’s the left side that’s active. It turns out the left side has an inhibitory circuit for the amygdala.

“It calms the amygdala. People who have this ability have more good days, more high energy, more self confidence, more enthusiasm and better moods”, says Goleman. It also enables learning, hones concentration and increases cognitive capacity.

Each of us has a resting ratio to one side or the other which accurately predicts our mood range. So for those of us stuck too far to the right, Davidson’s research shows that meditation strengthens and builds the circuitry for managing and inhibiting distressing emotions in the left pre-frontal lobe. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the improvement can already be seen in the circuitry within eight weeks.

That’s a showstopper for me. It means all that effort to rationally deconstruct my fears and override negative thoughts pales into insignificance compared to the benefits of exercising a part of my brain that’ll take care of it all for me.

I started meditating last week. I’m following the 15 minute guided beginner meditation videos on YouTube channel, Kernal of Wisdom. So far, so good. I am in no way suddenly zen, but I could sit through the 15 minutes without irritation, and that is a great start. In fact, it was rather relaxing.

Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson have just released a book about the brain science involved in meditation, Altered Traits, which dives deeper into this topic. In the meantime, check out the Huffington Post video of Richard Davidson explaining his research and its origins.