The Common Bad Habit That Lowers IQ, According To Research

It comes down to doing too much.

Last updated on Mar 07, 2024

Woman stressed from multitasking amazingmikael, StockSnap | Canva 

Are your eyes falling on these words on this page and yet your mind is thinking, “What else can I be doing as well?”​ Perhaps as you were starting to read this article on one device, with the news on TV in the background, a Facebook beep just came in and you simply couldn’t resist reaching out to your smartphone to check it out. Sound familiar? Bring your eyes and ATTENTION back on this page, because you’re about to learn how chronic mind-wandering and multitasking habits could be destroying your happiness.   


Research by Dr. Glenn Wilson at the University of London found that when people text and email at the desk, their IQ can be lowered temporarily by 10 points as the mind jumps from task to task. While multitasking may make us appear like pro jugglers, says Professor Earl Miller — a neuroscientist at MIT, our brain is switching between tasks like a poor amateur plate-spinner. So what’s the cost to our bodies in our constant attempts to shift attention from one activity to another? Repeated multitasking can lead to anxiety, thus increasing the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.


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Because you're stressed, your brain raises the production of adrenaline — a fight-or-flight hormone that can over-stimulate the brain — resulting in head fog and scrambled thoughts (similar to losing a good night’s sleep!). Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. Dopamine is like a "give me more” chemical in the brain, making us addicted to multitasking and tricking us into thinking we're getting things done. Forcing the brain to switch back and forth and work overtime also depletes its oxygenated form of glucose — the very same fuel that we need to stay on task. This in turn can wear out our brains so that small decisions seem to use as much energy as big ones.



We get all tangled up in a vicious cycle — working hard at multitasking while ironically taking longer to get things done. This can lead to feeling more stressed and needing to multitask even more. If you're secretly feeling ineffective and inefficient, it's likely because that’s true. Do you feel tired and disconnected even after a short period of multitasking? Being tired can leave you feeling impatient, which in turn might make you behave more impulsively. You might even end up making big decisions that you normally wouldn’t have, even after a string of smaller poor decisions that — you guessed it — leave you feeling stressed.  


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Ever tried studying and watching TV and found it didn’t work? That’s because this type of multitasking causes the new information you’re trying to take in to go to the wrong part of the brain. Dr. Russ Poldrack of Stanford researched university students while they "multitasked" studying and watching TV at the same time. His study found that new information from studying got channeled into the striatum, a region specialized in storing new procedures and skills. What’s wrong with that? Well, by contrast, students who didn’t have the TV on in the background had the new information sent to the hippocampus, where it got stored and organized for easier retrieval later on — like for a test.

According to Professor Earl Miller, “…when [people] say they can [multitask], they’re deluding themselves.” Now that you’ve become more aware of the effects multitasking has on your brain, you have two choices for every stressful moment where you're tempted to multitask. You can keep spreading yourself thin and suffer the consequences, or explore new ways to stay in the moment. You can teach yourself how to focus and complete the task at hand, rather than jumping between three and getting nothing done. 



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The good news is, there are plenty of methods to help you stay present. When you get overwhelmed, sometimes slowing down and narrowing your attention can help bring you back to calmness. Give yourself a quick mental scan of your person from your toes to the top of your head, and try to sense how each body part feels. You can also find things to appreciate or be grateful about. Allow yourself to soak in the good feelings.

Whenever we embark on forming new thoughts or behavioral patterns, it’s good to start making changes in small bites — so you can keep it doable and let it integrate into your daily life comfortably. Now stop multitasking ... and start getting things done! 

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Huey Lin, MSc, has undergone thousands of hours of mind-training and meditation to help herself and others — particularly women — take control of their lives, and is a certified holistic coach.