“Whenever you check email, every so often you get a hit, some great email received. That happens on a random schedule. In Psychology, that’s called random reinforcement and that’s enough to reinforce behavior.”
Does your morning routine consist of checking emails, browsing Facebook, downing coffee, heading to the train while Googling one last idea, checking notifications, more coffee, and going through your work email? The myriad activities crammed into your morning, and the constant switching between them, is likely making you very tired.
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.”
Studies have found that people who take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours end up being more productive, says Levitin. But these breaks must allow for mind-wandering, whether you’re walking, staring out the window, listening to music or reading. “Everyone gets there a different way. But surfing Facebook is not one of them,” he says. Social networks just produce more fractured attention, as you flit from one thing to the next.
Hal Pashler, Psychology professor at UC San Diego, points out that not all attempts at multitasking are equally draining. If you’re doing something on autopilot, such as the laundry, then it makes perfect sense to read a book at the same time. But attempting to do two challenging tasks at once will lead to a drain in productivity. “You can’t do two demanding, even simple tasks, in parallel,” he adds.
Random behavior can be incredible difficult to combat. And Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, in his research found that after being frequently interrupted, people often develop a short attention span and begin to self-interrupt.
The solution is to give up on multitasking and set aside dedicated chunks of time for each separate activity. So only check your email first thing in the morning and again at midday, or set aside 10 minutes per afternoon for Twitter.