Your devices are probably ruining your productivity. Here’s why

The habit of multitasking could lower your score on an IQ test and cause other cognitive deficits. Photo by trailfan

I'll admit it. I even take my phone with me to fire off a few texts when I go to the restroom. Or I'll scroll through my email when I leave the office for lunch. My eyes are often glued to my phone from the moment I wake up, but I often reach the end of my days wondering what I've accomplished.

How the Digital Age Zaps Productivity

My productivity mystery was solved after reading "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World," by University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. He explains why the brain can't multitask, and why my near-obsessive efforts to keep up on emails is likely lowering my creative output.

I visited Gazzaley in his UCSF laboratory, Neuroscape, to learn more about the science of distraction. Gazzaley pulled up, on a TV screen, a 3-D image of a brain, created from an MRI Scan. He pointed to different sections to explain what's going on when our attention flits between tasks.

The habit of multitasking could lower your score on an IQ test.

"The prefrontal cortex is the area most challenged," Gazzely says. "And then visual areas, auditory areas, and the hippocampus — these networks are really what's challenged when we are constantly switching between multiple tasks that our technological world might throw at us."

When you engage in one task at a time, the prefrontal cortex works in harmony with other parts of the brain, but when you toss in another task it forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. The process of splitting our attention usually leads to mistakes.

In other words, each time our eyes glance away from our computer monitor to sneak a peak at a text message, the brain takes in new information, which reduces our primary focus. We think the mind can juggle two or three activities successfully at once, but Gazzaley says we woefully overestimate our ability to multitask.

"An example is when you attempt to check your email while on a conference call," says Gazzaley. "The act of doing that makes it so incredibly obvious how you can't really parallel process two attention-demanding tasks. You either have to catch up and ask what happened in the conversation, or you have to read over the email before you send it — if you're wise!"

Responding to an Email Could Cost You 28 Minutes

Gazzaley stresses that our tendency to respond immediately to emails and texts hinders high-level thinking. If you're working on a project and you stop to answer an email, the research shows, it will take you nearly a half-hour to get back on task.

In other words, repetitively switching tasks lowers performance and productivity because your brain can only fully and efficiently focus on one thing at a time.

"When a focused stream of thought is interrupted it needs to be reset," explains Gazzaley. "You can't just press a button and switch back to it. You have to re-engage those thought processes, and recreate all the elements of what you were engaged in. That takes time, and frequently one interruption leads to another."

In other words, repetitively switching tasks lowers performance and productivity because your brain can only fully and efficiently focus on one thing at a time.

Plus, mounting evidence shows that multitasking could impair the brain's cognitive abilities. Stanford researchers studied the minds of people who regularly engage in several digital communication streams at once. They found that high-tech jugglers struggle to pay attention, recall information, or complete one task at a time.

When UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley needs to focus on a high level project he clears his desk, works on one screen and turns off all distracting digital devices. Photo by Lesley McClurg/KQED

"When they're [multitaskers] in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal," says Stanford neuroscientist Anthony Wagner. "That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

The researchers are still studying what's causing multitaskers to perform poorly on cognitive tests. It could be that they are born with an inability to concentrate, or digital distractions are taking a toll. In any case, the researchers believe the minds of multitaskers are not performing optimally.

And the habit of multitasking could lower your score on an IQ test, according to researchers at the University of London.

Creating Digital Boundaries

But don't worry. Gazzaley says. it's not about opting out of technology. In fact there's a time and place for multitasking. If you're in the midst of a mundane task that just has to get done, it's probably not detrimental to have your phone nearby or a bunch of tabs open. The distractions may reduce boredom and help you stay engaged. But, if you're finishing a business plan, or a high level writing project, then it's a good idea to set yourself up to stay focused.

Tips for Productivity At Work

  • Start by clearing off your work space. Remove mobile devices and any extraneous papers.
  • Use one computer screen. Shut down all unnecessary programs and apps. Open one browser and use only one tab.
  • Turn off email.
  • Set expectations. Tell your boss you're going offline for a while. Or, set an auto response for both your texts and emails explaining that you'll be offline for a set period of time.
  • Work in a quiet environment devoid of people. If you must work in a coffee shop use noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Display a "no interruption zone" at your desk or your on your office door.
  • Consult helpful apps such as SelfControl, Freedom, or FocusMe

This report was produced by KQED's Future of You blog. You can view the original report on its website.

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