Is Multitasking Bad for You?

Too many distractions can hurt your relationships and your health

During the past few decades, the ability to work on several different things simultaneously, or “multitask,” has become a desirable skill. But is this juggling of the responsibilities for work and home really a good thing?

“The truth is that in our efforts to fill every moment with activity, we are harming our personal relationships,” says Jim Cahill, biofeedback therapist at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “Do you want to talk with someone who is constantly checking their email or figuring out what they should be doing next?”

In addition to personal relationships, the demands of a busy lifestyle may also be harming your health. Why is distracted living unhealthy? As the brain moves rapidly from topic to topic, it sends electrical signals through the body, which causes stress. The theory is this constant excitatory response can disrupt almost any bodily system, from digestion to circulation. Prolonged stress has been linked to multiple health issues including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Learning to be mindful

“We still don’t know the full physiological impact of the modern, disruptive lifestyle,” notes Cahill. "However, it’s clear that practicing mindfulness instead of multitasking can have a profoundly positive impact on well-being. "

Practicing mindfulness means training the mind to focus on one thing at a time and reduce stress. Cahill teaches this with the aid of Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback Therapy (MBBT). Biofeedback uses sensors to display on a monitor the body’s physiological responses, such as heart rate, respiration and muscle tension. This technique allows you to watch how internal sensations affect these bodily systems. Using meditation and other mindfulness techniques, you can then learn ways to control the mind and the body’s response.

“This technique is a skill like anything else and requires practice. Once they learn mindfulness, people are often amazed at how easy and rewarding it is to tame a busy mind,” says Cahill. “MBBT can be used to help improve overall wellness or even deal with chronic conditions such as pain.”

Cahill adds that the results can be remarkable. In a 2007 study called the Shamatha Project, researchers at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain found that meditation not only sharpens attention, but it is linked to important physiological markers, including blood enzymes that protect health. Other research has shown that mindfulness techniques can reduce chronic pain by 50 percent.

“One thing is for certain,” Cahill adds, “Learning to avoid a loud, multitasking lifestyle will make you a better friend, spouse and parent. Most likely, it will make you a better worker, too.”

Get a regular dose of health news and information from Scripps

Sign up to have health-related information from Scripps delivered to your inbox, including our monthly email newsletter. Designed to help you and your family get healthy and stay well, the publication contains timely and relevant consumer health news along with notices about classes, events and exclusive offers.