Tech-multitasking impacts your memory

By Rebecca Sanderson – Director The Mindset Clinic

22nd April 2016

Do you think multitasking makes you more efficient? Do you ever attempt to send an email at the same time as talking to someone? Or perhaps you hop from one website to another whilst studying? Maybe you try updating your Facebook status whilst cooking? Or perhaps you attempt to reply to text messages whilst watching TV? STOP! Tech-Multitasking seriously impacts your memory.


So you think you are good at multitasking?

Our brains are not wired up for tech-multitasking

A neuroscientist at Stanford University in the US, Russell Poldrack found that when learning new information distractions cause it to go to the wrong part of the brain, making it harder to retrieve the information when you need it later. It sounds obvious that less distractions would make learning something easier, but many of us allow distractions from technology to interrupt us constantly throughout our waking hours. The research indicates this is seriously bad for your brain.

Do you think you accomplish more when you multitask? At work employees are interrupted by phone calls, email notifications, meeting reminders, alerts on their mobiles and people coming to their desks. At home students are interrupted whilst learning by the almost constant bombardment of social media notifications and text messages. But these distractions are impacting our memory and increasing our stress levels.

Neuroscientist and world renowned expert on divided attention, Earl Miller says “our brains are not wired to multitask”. There is a cognitive cost in switching repeatedly from one task to another as our brains our just not designed to process information in this way.

Are you addicted to tech-multitasking?

Tech-multitasking or “interruptions” increase the level of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol has the goal of speeding up our responsiveness however, it can also damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for our long term memory.  Adrenaline can overstimulate the brain and cause brain fog or clouded thinking. When we open an email or a text we satisfy a need in us to seek out information. We create a dopamine addiction loop so these interruptions become pleasant distractions – or at least that’s what our brains think!

It’s very easy to get caught in a dopamine induced loop, it’s the same loop that gets people addicted to cocaine and heroin. When you search and find information you are rewarded by a big release of dopamine which makes you seek more and more. It becomes harder and harder to stop opening email, stop texting, or stop checking your mobile phone to see if a new message or text has arrived. You become addicted to dopamine and to the interruptions. The irony is that the more interruptions you get the better you feel!  It’s like feeding your brain sugar, without any calories! We love the hit of dopamine and so we seek out more and more empty tasks to keep us feeling high. Before we know it we have accomplished very little yet at the time we feel like we are being highly productive.

Multitasking has negative impact on memory

When you multitask you use different brain systems. Learning more complex things requires more attention. Poldrak’s study asked students to learn a simple classification task. They were asked to predict the sequence of shapes on a set of cards. In one task they learned without any distractions and then in the next they were asked to listen and keep count of high and low beeps whilst wearing a set of headphones. Interestingly the distraction of the beeps did not affect the accuracy of the predictions – the students could predict equally well with or without the distracting noise. However, what Poldrak found was that when students were asked about their knowledge of the task in a subsequent follow up session they found it hard to extrapolate the information, demonstrating that distractions impact the ability to retrieve information and knowledge.

In the study Poldrak found that distractions when learning cause the information to by-pass the hippocampus, the part of the brain we use to process, store and recall information and instead we utilise the striatum. The striatum is the part of the brain that we use when learning new cognitive and motor skills. The hippocampus controls are declarative memory – i.e. our ability to consciously recall facts and verbal knowledge so if this is by-passed the information we learn will not enter into the correct part of the memory system.

So a combination of things happen, you feel more stressed and you forget things, this in turn has a cyclical affect too. Practicing mindfulness in your daily tasks can help train your brain to be focused on the task in hand thereby reducing your stress levels and increasing your ability to remember information.

Many clients who come to see us at The Mindset Clinic report feeling stressed and muzzy headed. When asked about their strategies for dealing with information at work or learning at school we see the same patterns repeating themselves. Often people who are high achievers or perfectionists are most badly affected, equally people pleasers who want to be seen to be doing a good job or liked by others are also negatively impacted by this need to multitask. It stems from a need to not miss out on information for fear of losing friends, credibility in the work place or academic status.

Stanford professor Clifford Nass, known for his work on how humans interact with technology, carried out a series of tests on multitaskers to find out if they were better at switching from one task to another.

He found that tech multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” as “everything distracts them.”

Nass’ colleague Ophir said “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing”. People who are high multitaskers are “always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Uni-tasking (only doing one task at a time) is thought to protect the brain against degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin and author of the book The Organized Mind explains “You’d think that people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenalin feedback loop, in which multitaskers think that they are doing great. Part of the problem is that workplaces are misguidedly encouraging workers to multitask.”

So how do you stop Multitasking and start Uni-tasking?

First we need to fool our brains. We need to keep focused on the task in hand and on the goal we are trying to achieve.

If you are lucky enough to work somewhere that actively encourages you to eat your lunch away from your desk, or provides gyms or places to chill out. Start using them. Your productivity will increase. Productivity studies at Stanford have shown that productivity during 60 hour weeks is less than two-thirds that of what it is when 40 hour weeks were worked. So start limiting distractions, focus more on the task in hand, switch off notification, alerts and phones for specific periods of the day and you will find that your productivity increases which means you can work fewer hours.

Break the dopamine addiction feedback loop of your colleagues and friends. If they expect an immediate response from you tell them you are busy and you will get back to them at a specific time. Initially you will still be interrupted but eventually they will get the message that you will not be distracted and will only start to ask things of you when they really need it or know you are available.

Prioritise the work you need to do for the people that matter most. Stop trying to satisfy your need to please everyone.

Still not convinced?

According to the technology market research firm Radicati Group the average employee now checks email 36 times an hour which amounts to 13 hours a week reading, sending and sorting emails! Every time we are distracted with an email, it takes approximately 16 minutes to refocus on the task at hand and productivity drops by 40%.  Not only that but workers who check email frequently suffer a 10 point drop in their IQ which is the equivalent of missing out on an entire night’s sleep. No wonder people find a day at work tiring!

Be smart

Be smart and uni-task

Suggestions to control the size of your inbox:

Turn off email notification pop ups – our brains are wired to see motion and movement which can trigger our fight or flight response. So turning these off will help reduce your stress levels.

Stop filing your emails in lots of folders – Instead create one folder called ‘Read Emails’. Once you have read and processed an email file it in your ‘Read Emails’ folder. Search tools are far quicker than your brain at trying to remember which folder you have stored it in.

Set aside specific times of the day to access, read and process emails and stick to it. Set up a notification that goes out to senders to tell them that you only access emails at certain times of the day and that if they have not heard back from you within a given time period to re-send the message again with the title “2nd attempt” in the subject box.

Set up your ‘out of office message’ to inform senders that all mail will be deleted whilst you are on leave – tell senders that if the mail is important to re-send upon your return. That way when you return from leave you can hit delete and start with a clear inbox.

Declare email bankruptcy – a term coined by Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and made popular by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. If things get really desperate drag all of your emails to a folder named “Archive” and send out a mass email to your contacts declaring that any email sent requiring a response should be sent again.

If you struggle to keep on track of goals or would like help break your multitasking habit The Mindset Clinic can help you to re-train your brain so that you start becoming more efficient and productive. Get in touch via to book a free 30 minute consultation.