How Multitasking Affects Mental Health

Have you ever talked on the phone while writing or typing a message, or watched TV while talking to friends?

Congratulations, you’ve just engaged in multitasking. Although this can give you a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that you’ve done more at once, a recent study suggests that multitasking is not always associated with positive feelings.

A study at Michigan State University explored the multitasking behaviors of working mothers and fathers.

“Not only are working mothers multitasking more frequently than working fathers, but their multitasking experience is more negative as well,” according to a Michigan State University news release.

“Only mothers report negative emotions and feeling stressed and conflicted when they multitask at home and in public settings,” said Shira Offer, one of the main researchers for the study, in the news release.

Researchers think mothers might have more negative multitasking experiences because the tasks they complete related to housework and children are monitored more often by other people, which causes stress. The authors of the study suggest fathers help mothers more so they don’t have to multitask so much, and that employers should allow men to have more flexible schedules so they can dedicate more time to family.

This study brings up an interesting concept of multitasking harming mental health, at least for women in some situations. Experts have different opinions on the effects of multitasking, but overall it appears that many professionals believe multitasking can be detrimental to mental health. Yet it is still prevalent in the American society.

Leigh Anne Jasheway, a stress management and humor expert and speaker, said in an email that the concept of multitasking itself is misleading.

“Our brains cannot do more than one thing at a time,” Jasheway said. “The word that is more accurate is ‘attention switching.’”

She said that some of the problems of attention switching that she notices in a group juggling activity that’s part of a workshop she runs include:

1) “Inability to focus well on any one activity.”
2) “Feeling rushed all the time even when you're not doing multiple things.”
3) “Feeling unproductive when only doing one thing (this is especially true for women).”
4) “Impatience and lack of empathy for others who are often seen as getting in the way.”

Margaret Moore, the co-author of “Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life,” said in an email that multitasking is generally unnatural.

“The brain is not designed to mulit-task or multi-focus, which means is less effective at being productive, creative, and strategic,” Moore said.

Because the brain is not meant to engage in multitasking, there can be negative consequences.

“This lower level of brain functioning leads to distraction and overwhelm, causing negative stress because tasks aren't accomplished or are not done well,” Moore said.

Negative emotions can result from the experience of multitasking.

“Negative emotions impair the function of the pre-frontal cortex and our ability to focus our brain's resources on the task at hand,” Moore said. “Negative emotions trigger physiological stress including increased heart rate and blood pressure, and more stress-triggered cortisol production is also damaging.”

John Salat, the author of “Tao, Art of Flow,” said in an email that he believes in some cases multitasking can be positive.

“Multitasking has great affects for mental health that will bring a positive outlook with proper pace and challenge,” Salat said. “It keeps the mind [and] body sharp when we stretch into our day.”

However, he said that it’s important that after people reach a certain point of multitasking, they need to “restore and regather [their] energy through meditation.”