I remember writing my resume in the first several years of my working life. At the bottom, under “Other Skills,” I proudly wrote “excellent multitasker.” I’d heard from our Career Services officers that you should try to match your skill set to the job description, and at the time it seemed that every job I was applying for required you to be good at multitasking. (Also common were descriptions like “thrive in a fast-paced environment” and “results-oriented.”) In fact, I felt very comfortable multitasking through my internship experiences—grabbing coffee and lunch for superiors while fixing the office air conditioner and organizing the stock room? You got it! I felt proud when people noticed how I could handle any number of tasks without dropping the ball.
Fast forward to 2020, eleven years out of college, and I find that a lot of environmental and internal factors have shifted. When I was starting out in 2009, the smartphone was just in its infancy. (Having a Blackberry was cool back then!) I legit carried a flip phone, and even after I transitioned to an iPhone in 2013 (!!!!), I wasn’t that dependent on apps and Apple News. Now, not only am I constantly resisting the urge to turn on Apple News and scroll through IG (hello, election 2020!), I also find that my brain needs coddling. It’s not that I feel stupider 😞, because I’ve gained other intellectual faculties since my early twenties. But just like my creaky joints and scars that don’t instantly heal, my brain needs all the help it can get. Multitasking doesn’t invigorate me like it used to—it leaves me feeling frazzled and frustrated with myself.
A new study published in Nature corroborates that this isn’t just limited to personal perception—it’s scientific fact that multitasking is linked to poor memory and cognitive function. Stanford scientists asked 80 subjects to perform memory tests while measuring their pupil size and alpha posterior brain waves. “Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility and so forth,” study lead author Kevin Madore, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab, said in the press release. “We also know that constrictions in pupil diameter—in particular before you do different tasks—are related to failures of performance like slower reaction times and more mind wandering.”
The study found that those with low sustained focus and heavy multitasking habits performed the worst with memory test. Memory depends on goal-directed cognition: in other words, we need to be ready to remember, be focused, and have a goal in mind in order to etch that in our brains. For example, if you try to remember what you ate for dinner a week ago, you likely won’t remember—not because you’re incapable of remembering something a week out, but because you never intended to remember it. Multitasking affects this “memory preparedness”—and it’s worth noting that you don’t have to be actively multitasking to perform badly. Your consistent multitasking habits like IG breaks, checking email, listening to podcast while you run or cook, listening to music while you shower, all have a cumulative effect of reducing your memory preparedness around the clock. Gulp.
Neuroscientist Dean Shirazi takes this even further to say that “There is no such thing as multitasking; there is such a thing as doing multiple things badly.” This goes against the common myth that men are hunters and women are gatherers, so men evolved to focus on their prey and women evolved to safeguard the cave while nursing children and gathering berries—no, we women weren’t designed for multitasking either. “Without focus and attention, forget about short and long-term memory, forget about executive function, forget about creativity,” says Dr. Shirazi.
So what can you do to help your brain retain its powers as much as possible, since none of us are getting back our pristine adolescent brains?😩 It’s super simple: just do one task at a time. At first, you might feel like you’re not “doing enough” when you simply focus on cooking, writing, or even taking a walk without being distracted by DuoLingo. I mean, when is the last time you watched an entire movie on Netflix without checking social media?? (I’m too embarrassed to even estimate.) You could think of it as a mindfulness exercise, or a chance for your brain to restore itself before you fully engage in your next task. From now on, I vow to be as monotasking as possible, unless it’s cuddling my cats while watching TV.
Do you remember when multitasking was a hot thing to write on your resume? How times have changed!!
Photo: Jane Palash via Unsplash