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Has multitasking fried my brain and heightened my anxiety?

Words by Hannah Cole

Illustration by Twylamae

For years I thought I could do it all.

For years I bought into one of the biggest lies of them all: that I can do it all. Even more, that I can do it all, at the same time.

A recent bout of high anxiety made me question this belief though. The more tabs I had open and the more I switched between them, the higher my anxiety would be. My brain was having trouble registering each task; I couldn’t remember what article I’d just read. So, is multitasking making my anxiety worse? Or is my anxiety partly due to all this multitasking? More importantly, have I fried my brain for life?

With so many options and so much content to consume, it’s difficult not to multitask. So, we catch up on Queer Eye as we cook dinner. We listen to The High Low as we commute to work. Even baths are no longer safe spaces (we can do *anything* in the tub). As I write this, I’m fiddling with my hair, gulping wine and making dinner plans over text. My brain is never switched off.

Through the lies I was fed, I convinced myself I was a really, really, fucking good multitasker. The best, even – putting out fires left, right and centre was my main game. I even convinced myself that I liked multitasking; that I thrived off it.

Oh, but how misled the lost are.

The late Stanford University professor, Clifford Nass, argued that those who believe they are the best at multitasking are, in fact, the worst. “Suckers for distraction and suckers for the irrelevant,” he was quoted saying, stabbing at my pride. All these distractions and task-switching antics are diminishing our ability to concentrate and destroying our productivity. We waste time as the brain attempts to re-enter “project mode” or “writing mode” after a quick scan of the old Instagram.

This brain fog and fugue state I’m experiencing is no unusual sensation. Dr David Strayer, professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, says that “our brain can’t handle the overload.” Our individual power machines are super-wired and super-tired. My brain is functioning like my laptop: overused and overrun with endless tabs. The only solution is to conk out and shut down.

Whether multitasking is used as a distraction from anxious or depressed feelings or is the root cause, is still left unknown. Whichever it is, I can evidently see the impacts of my *switched on* state – more forehead wrinkles, less brain power, and lower sleep quality.

But don’t let the overload get you down. In understanding these impacts, we also uncover the power to change them. We can become less wired and scatter-brained. Just follow any or all of these highly recommended steps:

  • Schedule email time. (Rarely is an email life or death, so it will be ok).
  • Choose the critical tasks for each day and schedule them in. Then actually stick to the schedule.
  • Turn off unnecessary phone notifications. (Co-Star is excluded for the genius and uplifting horoscope bursts).
  • If your concentration is lacking, use the 20-minute rule. Break tasks down into 20-minute blocks, go hard for that time, then switch. Finally, get shit done. 

I’ll never be a perfect mono-tasker (the sick side of me still loves the adrenaline rush of pumping through emails and switching to my hearts’ content.) But I’m making an effort to apply these tips in a way that works for me.

I’m checking emails less frequently and only heeding immediately to those screaming urgency. I’m *attempting* to complete a full task before making weekend plans. And I’m also trying to unplug a little more – ditching podcasts so I can pay attention to my surrounds as I commute home. It’s refreshing, and I can feel the air cleansing my mind. I might not ever be up-to-date with the latest Netflix Originals again, but it’s the price I’m willing to pay. I need my brain to live and work with me forever, and I’m pretty sure it can survive without another season of Stranger Things.

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