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May I Have Your Partial Continuous Attention Please? (The Dangers of Multitasking and Mental Stress)

October 31, 2013, 1:12 PM

Please stop whatever else you are doing and give your full attention to what you are reading. This is a post, after all, about the negative effects that multitasking can have on emotional well-being and productivity. 

Multitasking is increasingly common in our digital age, and many of the dangers are well known. For instance, if you are texting while driving, you can get into an accident. If you are on your smart phone while having a conversation with someone then you are creating social dangers. You can certainly insult someone if you answer your cell phone in the middle of a conversation.

But beyond those examples, multitasking may be causing a state of heightened mental stress "because we’re constantly scanning the environment and we know that chronic stress is not good for the brain." So says Dr. Gary Small, Professor of Psychiatry and Aging at the UCLA School of Medicine, in a lesson on Big Think Edge, the only forum on YouTube designed to help you get the skills you need to be successful in a rapidly changing world. 

Small says that a mental process related to multitasking called partial continuous attention (PCA) is difficult to resist because "our dopamine circuits that are involved in reward systems drive it because we want that exciting new bit of information." So how can we resist this mental process?

Small says we have to be aware of it and try to manage it better. Consider this example:

Not long ago I said to my teenage daughter, "You know, Rachel, when I’m talking to you and you’re texting at the same time I just don’t get the sense that you’re paying attention to my conversation." So she looked up at me and said, "Don’t worry Dad, I don’t do this with my teachers." And then she looked right down and continued her texting. Now I can laugh about that, and she is an adolescent and it’s a different culture to some extent. It’s tolerated more in their age group, but I think there are still social gaffes that people get into as a result of partial continuous attention. I think another thing that’s important to do is to take breaks from the computer and if we’re having a face-to-face meeting maybe turn off some of the gadgets and not be tempted to be distracted by them.

What effects (if any) have you observed of your multitasking on your productivity or emotional well-being? What single change could you make to reduce your multitasking significantly?

To see Small address these questions and others, sign up for a free trial of Big Think Edge here. 

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