Why Multitasking is Addicting?

Its 8:00 am you’ve just dialed into a conference call. As you wait for the other participants to come on you open up e-mail.

As the call begins you turn your attention to the call for maybe five minutes before you turn back to e-mail and finish up the reply you were working on before.

Message sent – back to the conference call.

You think you’re being more efficient right?

The number of inbox messages is going down as the call goes on – two things being accomplished at once – it feels good.

Appearing Productive and Being Productive are Vastly Different

Your brain has a lot of difficulty switching back and forth between two different cognitively intensive tasks.

Paying attention to what someone is saying and reading/replying to e-mails are both taxing on your brain. You can’t read and listen at the same time – it’s physically impossible.

What it means is you aren’t really taking in all the information you are reading – you’re just skimming the surface and it shows in your replies and your ability to retain the content of the e-mail.

The same is true for the conference call; you’re taking in some of the information but you’re not processing anything beyond the surface and your ability to recall is greatly diminished.

On some level, you know this and yet you still do it.


The answer is found in the evolution of our brains.

Our brains reward us with a little hit of dopamine – a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and motivation – every time we engage in something new or novel. It’s our brains way of saying, “good job – what else can you find?”

It feels good so off we go searching again.

This was good for us when our survival depended on us foraging for different foods, finding safe places to rest and fresh water to drink.

But now we are just being rewarded for novelty; whether it’s good for us or not. ┬áSo we continually switch back and forth from one project to the next – with a quick stop to check e-mail or text in between.

Multitasking is Addicting

In 2004 a team of researchers studied a group of hi-tech workers and found on average they switched between projects every 12 minutes and every three minutes checked either e-mail, the internet or their phones. This wasn’t necessarily e-mails or texts coming in either – just something go off in their brains that it was time to check for some outside stimulus.

This loss of productivity is estimated to cost US businesses $650 billion a year.

The Lure of Instant Gratification

All of our gadgets that we keep close at hand make it too easy to try for the reward.

That’s where the deeper problem is.

If the potential for a reward requires very little effort we don’t give it a second thought as to whether we should do it or not; we just do it over and over and in so doing we are rewiring our brain to expect it… need it.

Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together

Every time you do a particular habit, the neurons in your brain are firing and communicating.

The more they fire the stronger those connections become. Your brain is always rewiring itself; for worse or for better. Whether you are conscious of it or not.

So you are reinforcing a neural pathway in your brain that you must constantly be rewarded every few minutes or else you feel discomfort. A lack of dopamine does that.

It’s the same for the cocaine addict – they don’t feel good when they don’t have their drug because cocaine and other opioids work by dramatically increasing dopamine levels in the brain. They want the dopamine just like you do. A good reason not to look down on addicts – on some level we all are.

So the cocaine addict trains their brain to believe they must have cocaine in order to feel good. The rest of us are training our brains to believe we must have novelty every few minutes in order to feel good too.

The price we pay is our reduced ability to focus, recall information and deeply penetrate any topic or problem.

This doesn’t make us smarter, it makes us dumber.

The Solution

By understanding what’s going on in your brain every time you do this, that alone might give you enough willpower to have some control. But don’t rely on willpower alone – it’s a diminishing resource.

Turn your phone off, close up e-mail and shut your office door a few times a day.

Designate certain times throughout the day where you will check your e-mails and close e-mail when it’s not those times. Just the effort of having to open e-mail means a little more effort and can give you that moment to pause and resist.

Making these few changes will start to rewire your brain away from needing constant novelty in order to feel good. You might find you feel better and actually do become more productive.

2 Responses

  1. Hello, I enjoy reading all of your article. I like to write a little comment to support you.

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