Distractions and Multitasking

Learning Objectives

  • Define distraction and multitasking, and describe how personal technology may help or hinder your study efforts

“Multitasking”—doing several things at the same time—has become a common word for describing what many of us do every day in the modern world. Our busy lifestyles and our ever-present devices suggest that many of us have become multitasking experts.

But is multitasking real? Is it possible to do several things at the same time? Can we actually check Facebook, watch television, read a textbook, and write a paper at roughly the same time . . . productively?

Switch Tasks = Lose Productivity

Evidence suggests that multitasking is not, in fact, possible. Psychology research shows that we can attend to only one cognitive task at a time.[1] What we call multitasking is actually just switching back and forth between tasks quickly. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but we lose time with each switch. The loss may only be one-tenth of a second, but the time adds up. Think about your own experience.

Busy Brains

Researchers have found that multitasking increases production of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline.[2] These hormone-level increases can cause the brain to literally overheat, which leads to foggy mental processing. So multitasking while studying for a final exam might not be a good idea.

Multitasking also taxes the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that integrates information. Your capacity for problem-solving decreases with the number of tasks you try to perform at the same time.

Personal Technology: Helping or Hindering Your Study Efforts

The perceived need to multitask is driven largely by the technology takeover of recent years. Smartphones, email, social networking, Instagram, Twitter . . . all make multitasking seem both necessary and possible. They all require switching in and out of a line of thinking. With these technologies, we face constant information overload and distraction.

Becoming More Productive

How can we become more productive with our time and energy, given our tendency to multitask? Consider these tips:

  1. Try “batch processing”: Have set times during the day for checking and responding to emails.
  2. Use concentrated time: Block off time for working on just one task. You may need to turn off your phone.
  3. Do what’s most important first: Make goals for the day and accomplish them. The sense of achievement can help you resist anxiety-driven multitasking.

What are your thoughts on multitasking? How does it affect your productivity? The following video, from the University of British Columbia, features students talking about multitasking. Does it exist? Is it effective? Listen in, or view the full discussion on multitasking by University of British Columbia.

You can view the transcript for “UBC Students Talk: Multitasking – Does It Work?” here (opens in new window).


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More

  1. "The True Cost Of Multi-Tasking." Psychology Today. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
  2. Levitin, Daniel J. "Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.