Here's what happens to your brain when you check your phone during a meeting

Photo: Sean Gallup/ Getty.

Checking your phone during a meeting or business discussion is often considered rude, but it could also make you bad at your job.

After discovering the negative mental effects of checking your phone before bed, Business Insider reached out to clinician and expert in brain and mind psychology, Dr Nicola Gates to understand the consequences of repeating this habit in a corporate environment.

“Lets start by squashing the myth of multi-tasking,” she says. “It does not exist. What is happening is that your brain is rapidly shifting between the different tasks – you cannot pay attention to the meeting and your texts at the same time.”

“Multi-tasking, be it texting during a meeting, or completing emails when on the phone, is a very inefficient way to complete either task, and is therefore not very productive.”

Gates reflects on the research of neuroscientists who have demonstrated that the brain cannot work on key aspects of multiple tasks at the same time. A processing “bottle neck” limits how much we can do at once, and instead of concentrating on one thing at a time our brain toggles between the tasks.

Furthermore, the brain processes cognitive functions in order of priority.

“Problem solving, strategic thinking, planning and organisation, and regulation for example are at the top,” says Gates, adding that attention is at the bottom.

“So when people are toggling they are taking their significant higher order brain power off the job at hand.”

What happens when we think we are multi-tasking?

Task performance takes longer.

Gates says: “The time your brain takes shifting focus between tasks and catching up takes time and cumulatively this slows responses and productivity.”

Error rates go up.

“When we do not give each task sufficient attention and as we switch gaps occur and things drop out of our online thinking – you might even make errors in the text as your brain transplants thoughts on the meeting into the text – or vice versa- if it does not shift adequately between tasks,” says Gates.

Memory is compromised.

“Juggling multiple tasks is an unnecessary load for the brain to carry and disrupts other processes – such as learning and problem solving,” she says.

“Try to remember what was discussed at the meeting later in time and chances are that you wont be able to with enough accuracy. Principally because to make a memory you have to concentrate – checking texts disrupts this process. The outcome of that is more time wasted and/or more errors. Productive time is lost you have to check back with the minutes or other people – disrupting them.”

Higher order processes are interrupted.

Gates also says it will prevent you from moving forward in your work.

“If we are juggling between tasks we can’t move on to do higher order processing on any of them – too much brain power is being used just holding things on line.

“If we do just one task at a time then we have more resources to allocate to the task and engage in problem solving, planning etc. For example if you are rapidly juggling a hammer and a nail and planks of wood you will never build a house. Put everything down, lay down a plank, pick up and place a nail, then hammer it in you might just make progress.”

Fertile time lost to futile activity.

“We are constantly bombarded by information but it has not made us be smarter or work more productively,” she says. “An international study, the 2010 Lexis Survey, of white collar workers found that on average employees spend more than 50% their working day receiving and managing information rather than utilising the information to complete their jobs.”

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