Why multitasking always leads to stress

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Do you think multitasking can help you finish fast?

Do you think that multitasking is good?
Do you believe that it can help you achieve more results?
Well i have a surprise for you.

Our brains Can't multitask.
This sounds strange right?

Well let me explain why. Our Brains assign all of their resources to certain task as soon as we start doing it. For example while i am writing this article now my memory, sight and brain are fully focused on it.

Now what if My phone started ringing now while i am fully focused on writing?
One of two things is likely to happen. The first is that i will pick up the phone and answer and the second is that i will ignore it.

If i chose to ignore the phone its ringing sound will keep demanding more resources from my busy brain. But because my brain is already focused on the article it will get overloaded and stress might happen.

This sounds familiar right?
Remember the last time you were so focused on a task then someone kept shouting your name?
Didn't you notice that you got irritated and stressed?

Why Multitasking is really bad

In my previous article about stress i said that stress happens when two different things fight simultaneously for your limited brain's resources.

Our brains are very powerful but when they focus on something almost no resources are left for anything else to interfer. Do you know why working fast to meet a deadline is stressful?

Simply because while your brain is locked on the task another part of it fights to check the remaining time and thus it gets overloaded. What happens to your brain while multitasking is very similar to that situation.

Lets suppose that you started working on an Excel sheet then left it all of a sudden to answer a WhatsApp message. In such a case part of your brain's resources will still be thinking about the uncompleted task while another part will be focusing on the message. In other words you will certainly get a bit stressed.

The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological theory that says that the brain can hardly forget about unfinished tasks. Now when you give your brain 5 unfinished tasks in the same time its resources are going to be divided among them all and the result would be intense stress.

Now back to the example i gave in the beginning of the article. Even if i answered the phone instead of ignoring it a part of my brain's resources will still be thinking about the task while i am on the phone and so i will get stressed as well in this case.

You might be thinking that this is not right especially if you got used to multitasking. The truth is that you got used to a certain level of stress that your mind stopped noticing it. In addition to this any additional unexpected thing that will happen such as a ringing phone will make you very stressed. In short even if you are used to multitasking still it will put you at a great risk.

How to avoid the stress resulting from multitasking?

There are very simple steps you can do to make your workday much less stressful:

  • 1- Do one task at a time
  • 2- Don't start on a second task before you finish the first
  • 3- Start with the simple and short things first
  • 4- Stay away from your phone while working or keep it silent
  • 5- Monitor your stress levels and take a break when needed

The takeaway is: Multitasking is really bad.

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