Dr. Amir AllenTowfigh, a neurologist with Weill Cornell Medical Center claims that multitasking can jam up your brain processing. He says our frontal lobes are the main engines directing our attention, and they have a limited amount of processing power. Multitasking puts a strain on working memory since it requires you to bring back important pieces of information for each task as you switch back and forth between them.
Energy management is required in order to maximize your performance, retain your health and protect your brain. This involves both gaining the energy in the first place – through such things as proper sleep, diet and exercise – and managing the energy through judicial use of your time.
As explained by Wray Herbert, in his book, On second thought, if we are overtired and mentally depleted, our brain switches automatically to its less effortful mode; it’s just too difficult to crunch a lot of information and sort it intelligently if we lack the fuel for thinking. If you’re in the habit of composing email and carrying on a conversation with a coworker while eating lunch, you could be creating a brain drain.
David Rock, in his book Your brain at work, claims that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking things through and making decisions, uses up metabolic fuel faster than people realize, and that we have a limited amount of energy resources for activities such as decision-making and impulse control, Making one difficult decision makes the next one more difficult.
Brain research does indicate that you can have several motor programs running simultaneously, whether it’s steering your car, talking on your cell phone, texting a message or whatever; but you can only focus your conscious attention on one thing at a time. Your body may react through habit; but your brain thinks sequentially. So relying on muscle memory when thinking is required can be a dangerous practice.
By using functional MRI, researchers discovered that when people juggle two assignments, their prefrontal cortex appeared to deal with the tasks one at a time, creating a mental bottleneck.
The ability to focus is one of the most critical functions of the brain, and it depends on the strength of our executive skills, which reside mainly in the prefrontal cortex. They are not fully developed until we are about 25 years old, and our brains shrink at about 2% per decade as we age – so it is even more imperative that we do not multitask when we are either young or aging. It is during these stages of our lives that we are most easily distracted.
Multitasking can also be stressful, and during stress our weakest executive skills become more pronounced. Too much exertion without a break taxes the executive skills as well. The cards are stacked against you when you multitask.
An article appearing in the New York Times described the results of this energy drain on a parole board’s decisions. After examining more than 1100 decisions over the course of a year, it was found that prisoners who appeared before the board early in the morning received parole 70% of the time; but those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time. In at least one incidence two prisoners were serving the same sentence for identical crimes and yet the one appearing at 8:50 a.m. was paroled while the one appearing at 3:30 p.m. was denied.
Ruling on case after case throughout the day caused decision fatigue and warped their judgment. And it can have a similar effect on all of us if we do not manage our energy as well as our time.