Fried Brains - The Metabolic Cost Of Multitasking

In a digital world it is very easy to let our attention get pulled left and right by a storm of competing distractions. Should I check my email? Who sent that text? Whats happening in the news? Are the photos online? Which team won? Shall I do that quiz? Swipe right.

Sounds familiar right? We have all been there yet this addictive junk-food for the brain comes at a hefty cost. In his book The Organized Mind neuroscientist Daniel Levitin digs into the metabolic consequences of scatterbrained thinking;

“Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.”

What we see as multitasking is really just the rapid switching back and forth of focus which, as Levitin explains, is energy intensive and stress inducing.

Furthermore, multitasking doesn’t make us more effective or productive. Professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University studied serial multitaskers to see if they had developed any cognitive gifts which gave them an edge but found quite the contrary. The multitaskers were unable to filter out irrelevant information, had poorer memories and were outperformed in every test.

So why is it so hard to fight distraction?

Despite the deleterious effects, our brain craves novel stimulus which is helped along by a dopamine feedback loop activated whenever we switch focus to something new.

Freeing ourselves from this addictive cycle of task switching can help us to conserve energy and accomplish more of the important stuff in life but does takes some discipline and practice. Here are some potential strategies to help you along the way.


Not so much a strategy but the classic Nike slogan mindset works well for certain personality types who at the flip of a switch decide they will be distracted no more. For those of us who have trouble going cold turkey other tactics may need to be employed.


Straight from Gary Keller’s excellent book The One Thing building a bunker against distractions means creating an environment where your options to multitask are limited. Turn off your phone, disable updates, block websites, tidy your desk, close your door. In short, remove the ability to multitask from the equation.


This is a block of time designated to small tasks which otherwise slow down your day and deplete your energy. Phone calls, emails, texts, social media updates, house chores, groceries, etc. Knowing you have allocated time to these activities frees your mind to focus on more important things throughout the rest of the day.


Are you constantly distracted by new ideas and thoughts popping into your head? Quickly jot them down on a piece of paper or notepad and immediately get back to the task at hand. Outsourcing your memory to the external world frees up internal resources and is one of the key strategies outlined by Levitin in his book.


A research study by professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock at The University Of Washington suggests meditation practice can help people stay on task longer without being distracted. During the study participants were tested on their multitasking abilities then divided into three groups;

  1. Those who received 8 weeks of mindfulness training
  2. Those who received no training, were tested, then received mindfulness training
  3. Those who received 8 weeks of relaxation training

After each intervention the participants were retested and the results were significant.

“We found that only those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance."

These results tie into my own personal experience and is an area I am sure we will see lots more research on in coming years. For now though, if you feel distraction weighing you down why not practice meditation for a few minutes per day? You might find the results from the Levy and Wobbrock study hold true for you as well.

Avoiding the multitasking trap frees up physical and mental energy reserves which can be ploughed into more productive behaviours such as important projects or as this blog promotes regular exercise and healthy food choices. The net benefits are well worth a few missed tweets!