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Multitasking Drains Your Brain's Energy Reserves, Researchers Say (qz.com) 106

An anonymous reader quotes an article from Quartz: When we attempt to multitask, we don't actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them. And this switching is exhausting. It uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, running down the same fuel that's needed to focus on a task...

"That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing," says Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. "People eat more, they take more caffeine. Often what you really need in that moment isn't caffeine, but just a break. If you aren't taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won't benefit from that extra cup of coffee."

Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?
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Multitasking Drains Your Brain's Energy Reserves, Researchers Say

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  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @11:42AM (#52438875) Homepage Journal

    I find it depends on who's driving the switching. If I'm doing it at my own pace it's much less annoying than when some asshat is wittering or interrupting.

    Maybe because I switch as I'm coming out of "the zone" anyway?

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @02:21PM (#52439619)

      I find it depends on who's driving the switching. If I'm doing it at my own pace it's much less annoying than when some asshat is wittering or interrupting.

      Unlikely. Studies have found [npr.org] that people that think they are good at multitasking are actually the worst at it.

      • we don't actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them.

        Were you doing something else while you were reading TFA?

    • I find it depends on who's driving the switching. If I'm doing it at my own pace it's much less annoying than when some asshat is wittering or interrupting.

      Maybe because I switch as I'm coming out of "the zone" anyway?

      Especially with the last bit, this doesn't seem like multitasking in the usual problematic sense. I often find a great synergy with 2 or 3 projects going on during the same week, as doing one will give a nice break from the others. I might spend an hour or a few on one at a time, but sometimes the runs get shorter -- think compilation or cooking breaks, for example. It's well known that daemonizing your problems into the background while doing something else often helps you find unexpected solutions.

      IM(H

      • It may also, if you multitask in this sense, be that what triggers a switch is getting stuck or bored with Task A, which usually will result with a decrease in efficiency at that task; by switching to Task B or Task C, you manage to maintain interest and sometimes that can also actually help you get around the block.

        On the other hand, if you're trying to do Tasks A-D all at the exact same time, yeah, you're going to do a lousy job at all of them.

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          More simply the brain feels good for some people when fully active in certain ways, say problem solving. However when shit boring tasks crop up that require little mental effort, in order to keep the juices flowing, multiple tasks need to be done, still a poor substitute for that focused task that feeds the machine and keeps those good chemicals flowing. So the trick with multitasking has always been when to wind down to focus in single efforts and when to bring in multiple tasks to fill the gap. Get it wr

          • Sometimes not even trying can drop you straight into the F territory, because you get stuck on something like the Code That Won't Compile or groveling through utterly dry documentation for the one bit of information you actually need (which should be there...somewhere...) and you can't get it done. Switching can even help you actually get it all done--most people do have a hard limit on how long they can pay sustained attention to one thing, and this is on the whole considered a Good Thing since it means y

      • This is particularly bad if handling a social situation is one of those projects, so it's impossible to do real programming while engaged with clients, for example.

        Next you'll be telling me that hackers can't really crack into the Pentagon in under 5 minutes while carrying on a conversation with multiple people in a dark room where you can read the terminal text off the walls.

      • by hattig ( 47930 )

        I just wish I could nice -n 19 my brain's "web surfing" task.

  • dividing 100% into multiple parts and adding them together gives you back no more than 100%. Film at 11.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That's not what TFS is saying. It's saying the perceived overhead of switching tasks has a real impact on the brains energy balance, i.e. the splitting of 100% of your attention itself has tangible costs associated with it.

    • Re:In other news (Score:4, Interesting)

      by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @12:20PM (#52439065) Homepage Journal

      But what they're ACTUALLY saying is that if you do tasks serially, the total useful effort will be closer to 100% than if you try to switch back and forth between them.

      • by sunking2 ( 521698 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @12:33PM (#52439103)
        I disagree because you then have to add all the time wasted interacting with the people who come over and ask when you are going to start on their task.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          Learn the word 'no' and employ it with abandon.
          • Learn the word 'no' and employ it with abandon.

            Or just put up a sign: "Go solve your own problem, don't bother me!"

            • Or just put up a sign: "Go solve your own problem, don't bother me!"

              And when they make a rubbish solution, then it's your problem doubled.

        • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @01:28PM (#52439365) Homepage Journal

          In that case, you're not actually single tasking, are you?

          Play the people off of each other. for example, you have tasks for A,B,C, and D and you're doing them in that order. If B pesters you while you're doing A's task, then D pesters you, tell D that his task is being delayed by B's task but if B were to die mysteriously, D's task would get done a lot sooner.

      • How much you can/should juggle really depends on what you're doing, as well. If I've got various processes that require 5 minutes of work and 1h of execution (e.g. they take a long time to "run"), I'm not being very productive by take 1h5m to do task A, then task B, etc.
        The more likely scenario though is that task A requires periodic attendance in 10-15 minute intervals. Usually I can juggle at least a few of these at a time and pop between them, accomplishing several full tasks within 1-2 hours instead of

    • by qubezz ( 520511 )
      It also takes four two-hour tasks and makes them all take eight hours until completion.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?

    Once I tried to get first and second post at the same time and I just collapsed in exhaustion.

  • by e432776 ( 4495975 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @11:44AM (#52438899)
    I was going to comment but am busy doing a few other things. Ugh, need a nap now.
  • Gimme a break gimme a break break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar... http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics... [azlyrics.com]
  • Notifications from apps ranging from email, slack, Facebook, Twitter.

    Just turn them off. You're back in control. My 'out of office' says 'back on Monday phone if important'

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Mark, this is your boss. We couldn't get a hold of you over the weekend. You're fired.

      • by bn-7bc ( 909819 )
        Well does his contract / terms of employment reqier him to be avalable in weekends? If not he is right to put that nessage up, he allso states thet if it is imortant he is avalable on the phonr. Ok his deffinision f important may wary from the ne his boss uses but that is yusy a question of a quick e-mail along the lines of "please specify in which dituasions I will be required to work on the weekend and what comensation I may expect". No dane boss can object to that can he/she?
      • That is why I keep phone on. If important enough contact me. Otherwise not going to respond to continuous stream of crap.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I agree. Trying to switch between tasks has a huge overhead and the effort to regain focus is noticeable for me. Given the chance, I much prefer bringing all my concentration to bear on a single albeit complex task to doing simultaneous but simple tasks.

    One could argue that if the task does not merit your full attention, perhaps it is not worth doing at the moment? How many workplace errors and even injuries occur because someone wasn't properly focused on what they were doing? No one questions the d

    • Agree 100%. I ran a business for 17 years repairing Industrial Electronics. The real repair work on which I survived (on PCBs, instruments or factory machinery) required undivided attention, and then I could usually fix what had eluded many others. It also required a certain carelessness with regard to electric shock :-P.
      Given that I had the latter, I cannot consider myself unusually brilliant, so I presume 100% concentration gave me the edge that kept things going for so long.
      O & M guys in industry w
  • because taking a break essentially entails switching attention..
    • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @12:25PM (#52439081) Homepage Journal

      Actually taking a break is substantially different from loading up a new context and working at it, then swapping back.

      • Care to elaborate? Breaks and frequency of attention switching sound like two separate issues to me, not to be lumped together like that.
        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          You're the one asserting that taking a break is the same as a task switch.

          Taking a break ios more of a pause than a task switch. To go with a physical analogy, taking a break in a workshop means you put the work down and clear off a spot on the bench for a cup of coffee. Task switching means you put the workpiece and all the tools on the bench away, unchuck the bit you were using, then get out the other workpiece and tools needed to work on it, chuck a different bit.

          One of those is clearly more work and mor

  • by Aviation Pete ( 252403 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @12:17PM (#52439055)
    My 2 cents: When stuck at one problem it is of no use to focus. Better do something different, so your brain stops going in circles. However, when one task just flies along, stay with it to maximize your productivity. I try to have several tasks in parallel so I can switch between them if I am stuck at one. When I return after a while, I approach the problem from a new angle, which would not had happened when I had focused on the same task all along.

    What is totally useless is to do several things in parallel. The old story of Napoleon being able to dictate a letter, read a book, have a conversation and lead a battle all at the same time is simply bullshit. Had he done so, he would had sucked at all of them, in parallel.

    • It's likely not a coincidence that Napoleon was known for doing power naps. He must have at least took the advice given in the summary.

    • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @01:18PM (#52439321)

      When stuck at one problem it is of no use to focus. Better do something different, so your brain stops going in circles.

      Ever had trouble solving a problem, took a break and did something completely different, like take a shower, and *bam* the answer popped into your head while you washed your hair? Left/Right Brain Switch. I am *not* a doctor or scientist, but here's my take on this:

      By taking a break and focusing on something else, you are fostering a left to right brain switch [psychotactics.com]. In most people, the Left Brain is dominate and, basically, likes to be in charge. However, it usually tries to solve problems in a linear fashion, using concrete thinking. This doesn't always work. The Right Brain problem solves differently, in a more creative fashion, using more abstract thinking. However, when the Right Brain tries to help out, the Left Brain says, "shut up I'm thinking." Taking a break gives the Left Brain something else to focus on and allows the Right Brain time to work and slip the answer under the Left Brain's door.

      For more about general Left/Right Brain stuff, see:

      • For a gripping account how it feels to operate on only one half of the brain, watch Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk [ted.com]. Highly recommended!
      • Ever had trouble solving a problem, took a break and did something completely different, like take a shower, and *bam* the answer popped into your head while you washed your hair?

        I've certainly experienced this quite a few times. But how do you explain all the really really smart guys that are completely bald?

      • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
        I've always constantly switch between logic and creative when problem solving hard issues since I was a child, think a few seconds or less. First I logically think about the problem to identify main parts, then I "blank" my mind and the creative part start spamming me with all kinds of ideas on how to arrange those parts, then I use logic to filter those ideas. In the past few years this switch has been becoming less of a switch and just a more seamless part of my thinking. As this became more seamless, I'v
        • The more seamless it becomes, the more I can intermix creativity and logic at the same time.

          I've read that Left/Right Brain switching can become easier with practice. Sounds like you've had that practice.

    • I've heard the same thing, described as "Pile A" and "Pile B". (I think it was a famous science fiction writer, who had two piles of manuscripts he was working on -- but I can't remember which one. Maybe Robert Heinlein?)
      • I've heard the same thing, described as "Pile A" and "Pile B". (I think it was a famous science fiction writer, who had two piles of manuscripts he was working on -- but I can't remember which one. Maybe Robert Heinlein?)

        Yeah, RAH really had the knack for plausible-sounding BS. We miss ya, Bob!

  • Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?

    Yes. I'll get back to you after a break.

  • This is absolutely my experience. Running a small business, have to joggle issues, people, client problems, new opportunities etc., and then of-course other non-business related things. Doing it in more than one time zone as well. Yes, it is draining, tiring, hard to do. I like running the business, I like building the services and products, I like dealing with every day interesting questions. I do very often feel overwhelmed, often procrastinate solving any one of the problems present because there is

  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @12:49PM (#52439193)

    Context switching [wikipedia.org] has a cost - film at 11.

  • by John.Banister ( 1291556 ) * on Sunday July 03, 2016 @01:30PM (#52439379) Homepage
    I have worked primarily as chief engineer or electrician on commercial fishing vessels, mostly in the Bering Sea. Generally it's 12 hour shifts, and the boat is in continuous 24 hour operation. Typically, systems that require simultaneous engineer attention include fishing hydraulics, power generation, processing equipment, propulsion, & refrigeration. When I first come to a new boat, I have these issues when I'm switching between these things. As time goes on, I develop a mental model of the specifics of the entire vessel, and instead of switching between different things, I'm paying attention to one, more complex thing. When that happens I lose this penalty somewhat. The problem comes when returning from vacation, because I want to enjoy the loss of penalty, but the model may no longer be complete or may be intermixed with models of other vessels.
  • by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Sunday July 03, 2016 @01:35PM (#52439399)

    >"Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?"

    Yes. I find over multitasking exhausting in every way... mentally and physically. Often it can't be avoided, but usually it is due to artificial deadlines and unrealistic expectations by others. It makes a job so less rewarding- it seems like nothing really ever gets done and you can't be proud of the results. Sometimes it is better to just block things and get some stuff done from start to finish and move to the next task. And there is an inherent reward for having finished something and done it right than juggling 6 things for 10+ times as long.

    • Me as well. It's quite noticeable. One key distinction (also noted by others) is whether the context switch is externally imposed or internally generated. The latter are relatively painless, and probably actually productive as long as I'm not procrastinating excessively as a result.

      The former are just unpleasant, usually. Sometimes, though, when being pulled off of some bullshit, make-work task, I actually rather enjoy it.

  • Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?

    Yes. For the past decade, since I graduated and joined the work force, I have told my boss that interruptions during deep problem solving is already a major issue, but if the interruption requires any amount of thinking, I will quickly burn out and may only get about 2 productive hours in. Other people I work with claim to not have this issue, but it's easy to see their mistakes increase quickly. I'm very introspective and consciously monitor my thinking. I can easily tell my ability to think has been affec

  • "My wife says men are unable to do two things at the same time, but that's not true. Whatever I'm doing, I have to be listening to her at the same time."
  • According to this paper [psu.edu], bilinguals have an advantage when it comes to task switching. Also, according to this article [mappingignorance.org], true bilinguals, aka "people who learned both languages in childhood, know them well and use them frequently throughout life", are the best at task switching.
  • Anyone have any anecdotal experiences that back this up?

    Quit interrupting my daily dose of Slashdot to ask me for examples of things from my life. Interruptions like these make me tired. And cranky.

  • You should be wary of sample sizes of 1, but you asked for anecdotal evidence so here goes: I have multi-tasked various daily activities for the last 27 years, and I have found that taking a total break of roughly 8 hours every day helps. I come out of this (usually night-time) break period more refreshed than before and I find I don't need as much caffeine after the break.

    What do I do with this break? Not only do I shut my eyes but I also lie down in a darkened room. I even lower my heart rate and activate

  • Can I just buy a box of oxygenated glucose at whole foods and mix it in my bloody Mary?

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