We know that attention is an incredibly finite resource. So there’s really only so much of it to go around and we can train our attention so that we become better but will never be able to make it infinite.
And so one of the things that task switching does is use up mental energy so you need resources to switch your focus from one thing to another and the theory is actually very simple: the more your mind is doing, the more resources it needs. And so every time you switch your attention you’re actually switching circuits, you’re switching your focus, you’re switching the neural mechanisms behind it and that expends energy. Literally you can replenish it by having glucose or other things that actually boost your energy levels. So it’s a very, very literal thing that happens.
Your brain is actually getting tired, you’re actually losing resources and you’re actually becoming less able to do other things because you use those resources for the task switching now you no longer have them to pay attention to the tasks that you’re doing.
There’s a lot really interesting work that shows that people who multitask frequently are less efficient at task switching because they don’t know how to take those resources and really use them to their full potential. I think this is really fascinating because it ends up that heavy multitaskers become worse at the very thing that they should be very good at.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock