“Information is not knowledge.”
– Albert Einstein
Many of us sleep with our phones charging next to our heads, and 44% have done so because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates in the wee hours.
These numbers certainly suggest that we’re strongly attached to our mobile devices…and the variety of these devices continue to grow–from smartphones to tablets to smart watches. We’ve become accustomed to being constantly connected to our favorite apps, the latest headlines, and the newest notifications. These devices and our 24/7 connectivity have led us down the dark tunnel of information overload. In an interview with the Guardian, Daniel J. Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind,” explains, “We are living in an age of information overload. Google estimates that there are 300 exabytes (300 followed by 18 zeros) of human-made information in the world today. Only four years ago there were just 30 exabytes. We’ve created more information in the past few years than in all of human history before us.”
We are surrounded by an unfathomable amount of information! With our smartphones, we can carry it with us everywhere we go. Are we smarter? More productive? Happier? In offices all over the world, workers are drowning in emails while racing to meetings, while smartphones light up with new notifications every step of the way.
Our society tends to look at multitasking as something of a necessary evil: I’m so busy, the only way I can get anything done is to more than one thing at time. There’s no shortage of research investigating the impact of multitasking on our brains and our productivity. Different experts have found some key conclusions about multitasking.
When we say multitasking, we mean we’re doing more than one thing at a time. In reality, research shows that we aren’t paying attention to multiple things at once. Instead, we are switching between two or more tasks very rapidly, and Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, explains “there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
How We’re Wired
Earl Miller explains that our brains are “not wired to multitask well” and “when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
Stress and Scrambled Thinking
The article Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain explains the affect of juggling multiple tasks at the same time. Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, rewarding the brain for losing focus and for searching for external stimulation. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.
Juggling Tasks Leads to a Lowered IQ
According to a University of London study, “participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.” When we try to do many things at a single time, we perform worse on those tasks, ultimately negating any perceived benefits of multitasking.
The Cost of Learning
Professor Russel Poldrack, a psychologist at the University of California, discovered that trying to learn while doing something–such as doing homework while watching TV–sends information to an inappropriate part of the brain. Professor Poldrack found that when multitasking while studying, the information consumed goes to the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills. It’s challenging to retrieve facts and ideas from this part of the brain. If we aren’t distracted when studying, the information goes to the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information.
Maybe you’re thinking, that’s not me — I’m a great multitasker! Research shows that only about 2% of the population are super multitaskers; this small group of people can truly tackle many activities at the same time without losing efficiency or quality while working. Are you part of the 2%? You can test yourself here.
There’s always another side to the story. As far as multitasking goes, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong offer a different explanation. Kevin Lui and Alan Wong found that those who mulitask or often use lots of different media at once are better at integrating information. Could this mean that not all multitasking is created equal?
Dr. Broder, a psychologist from Philadelphia, PA, explains in his article The Dangers of Information Overload, “Perhaps the most important first step is to recognize that the potential ill effects of information overload are very real. The information glut drains your time and your emotional energy. Worse, perhaps, it dulls your ability to think for yourself.”
Find Solace in Focus
Unsurprisingly, there’s hundreds of articles loaded with tips on managing information overload. Here’s a few of our favorite suggestions:
- Instead of mulitasking, try single tasking, and work on a single issue at a time. Some tricks include scheduling time on your calendar and work on one project and turning off your email desktop notifications so you aren’t tempted to complete the budget and check your emails at the same time.
- Disconnect a little bit every day. Take some time out of your day to set your phone and other technology aside. Take a walk, talk to your loved ones, browse a magazine or a book.
- Set goals and concentrate on the things you need to do to achieve those goals
- Streamline your social media networks. This post gives you some ideas to help cut the clutter.
If you’re interested in learning more about information overload, visit this collection on Declara.