Like most of you, I consider that my multi-tasking skills are an asset. Most of the people in my professional circle are gifted multi-taskers, sliding seamlessly from one project to another – often coping successfully with a multiplicity of projects apparently at the same time. The key word here is apparently.
According to Common Sense Media1: ‘Multi-tasking is doing several tasks at the same time, such as texting while watching TV, posting on Instagram while talking to friends, or switching among programs on a computer.
Kids who are socially active on their devices often multi-task. It may make them less productive because the brain must refocus every time it switches to a new activity. They also may have trouble remembering things that occurred while they were multitasking. Some research even suggests heavy multi-tasking may be associated with social anxiety and depression.’
The suggestion that a skill I prize may be bad for me precipitated a burst of online research – I was multi-tasking at the time, so this additional initiative seemed totally natural and in character; juggling several balls in the air is what accomplished wealth advisors do – so I was totally unprepared to discover the truth.
The stress hormone cortisol
According to cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin2, multi-tasking – the skill so many of us admire and prize – ‘has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.’
This insight, which I rapidly corroborated with other sources, was originally published in The Guardian – a British newspaper – in an article entitled: Why the modern world is bad for your brain (January 18, 2015).
Apparently, multi-tasking can create what is known as ‘a dopamine-addiction feedback loop’ – a fancy way of saying that the brain rewards itself for losing focus. According to Dr. Levitin, ‘the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new.’
Intellectual brain candy
Think of your pre-frontal cortex as a teenager. Distracted. Reward-seeking. Narcissistic. Obsessively searching for the next diversion. When that happens, the pre-frontal cortex releases a burst of endogenous opioids (the feel good factor!) whose impact undermines our ability to stay focused on a single issue.
Then Dr. Levitin released the final damning conclusion. Multi-tasking is a form of intellectual brain candy, he wrote, enabling us to ‘reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’
Nothing new under the sun
The American political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist Herbert A. Simon3 said it best, years ago: ‘A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’ This is relevant to investing, as I quickly discovered. Here’s why.
Confusing information with knowledge
Most of us have a tendency to confuse information with knowledge, a human trait that can lead to flawed judgments. Information is a collection of facts. Knowledge is information that has value.
Back in the 1980s, a psychologist called Paul Andreassen conducted a simple experiment with a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) business students so see how information affects stock investments.
One group could only see changes in prices while the second group was allowed to read The Wall Street Journal, watch CNBC and consult experts on market trends. Unexpectedly, the group with less information earned twice as much as the well-informed group.
His analysis suggests the high-informed group was distracted by the rumours and insider gossip from the extra information.
The excess information encouraged them to engage in much more buying and selling than the low-informed group because they were confident their knowledge allowed them to operate more efficiently in the market.
In this case, price signals and the invisible hand of the market proved more efficient than an overload of information.
The consequence of multi-tasking is information overload. We think we’re successfully performing a multiplicity of tasks at once, but we’re not. It’s an illusion.
Earl Miller is a neuroscientist at MIT. He is an internationally recognized expert on divided attention. He contends that our brains are ‘not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’
When we multi-task we are deluding ourselves into thinking we’re expert jugglers, keeping a lot of balls in the air. But we’re not. We’re deluding ourselves.
Dave Ritcey, The Ritcey Team, Scotia Wealth Management