Stress & The Multitasking Brain

Sometimes, it really is all in your head.

Despite our best intentions to relieve stress, Multi-Tasking and Daily Decision Making can make the effects of stress worse. Occasionally, these habits can generate a stress response on their own, without any external stressors being present. Last year, I talked about how the chemicals released during stressful events trigger various physical responses. In this post, I’ll share how the brain shifts its modes in daily life and how some of our default modes can actually make our brains feel a little stressed out.

In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin and Vinod Menon present four states that the waking brain operates in:

  • Mind Wandering – (Daydreaming State) – The natural state; resting and integrating state.

    • Where great ideas come from.


  • The Filter – (Sensing State) – Detail oriented, filters importance out of the noise – draws the Thinking State (below) into gear.

    • Something catches your fancy.


  • The Central Executive – (Thinking State) – Sustained attention. Focused decision making. 

    • Finding flow.


  • The Switch – (Multi-Tasking State) – Alternates sustained attention between important tasks – requires much more energy than sustained attention, but also allows us to change paths when needed. Divergent decision making.

    •  Herding Cats. 


When switching between tasks, the brain needs to continuously be making decisions on what, how, when, where, and why. In addition to the everyday decisions of what to eat, what to wear, which route to take to work, this cumulates into something called Decision Fatigue. Putting continuous energy toward minor decisions can drain the brain’s capacity to handle the larger, more meaningful, consequential decisions. There is a functional reason for world leaders wearing the same clothing style daily or award-winning scientists eating the same daily lunch for a season.  Or why you might want to do the same. Multi-task when it’s time for a change, not all the time.

Multi-tasking builds higher cortisol levels and the brain requires more glucose than when working in sustained attention mode. Decision fatigue becomes a barrier to even simple task management. Distraction is a high-cost commodity.


Learning how to stay on task and allowing space for daydreaming helps productivity and requires less energy.

Every person and project requires different foci, but here are effective tools for each brain state that you can adapt or use as needed. 


1. Mind Wandering (Daydreaming)-

At least once a day, do nothing for five minutes. Not thinking, not talking, not sleeping, not eating, not reading, not watching. Allow yourself to stare off into the space. Let your brain have active rest. Allow integration and growth of new knowledge, creativity, and drive. It’s harder than it seems – gazing at moving clouds or a flame helps.


2. Attentional Filter (Sensing) 

Learning how to filter information is an undervalued skill of our time. Prioritizing our focus is a necessity from inboxes to looming deadlines or dinner plans.

A great tool for inboxes, from Getting Things Done, by David Allen, is the 4 Ds:

  • Delete it or Drop it – If you’ve been keeping it in your to-do list for months, it probably isn’t that important to you. Delete it. Unsubscribe from lists that you consistently delete without reading. If that seems impossible, then put it one of the next three categories.
  • Do it – If an email can be answered within two minutes, organize your day so that you have portions of time dedicated to answer chunks of just these quick emails. If a physical task can be accomplished within a short time frame that you have in front of you, do it first before doing anything else.
  • Defer it – If an email or electronic task will take more than two minutes, but still requires quality attention, set aside appointed times in your day to address these, one at a time. Similarly for physical tasks – create an hourly schedule and slot in your deferred tasks. Be realistic and include buffer times. It will take you a few minutes to organize this each day, but it is worth it.
  • Delegate it – Know your scope and your skills. Sometimes tasks or emails land on your desk that are much better handled by someone else. Learn to say no, and more importantly, “I don’t know and I need help.”
  • I’ll add a 5th & 6th D: Decide & Divide – Before you start these, each day you will want to sit down and decide which category your tasks fall into and establish filters so new tasks that arrive are either dealt with or are saved for tomorrow’s decisions. Without this preparatory step, the previous steps can feel disorienting and overwhelming in themselves.


3. Central Executive Mode (Thinking) –

Once you’ve decided on your task, big or small, your brain is primed for action. Ensure you have time allotted and, get to it! Do what you need to do to minimize distractions, be it for five minutes, 25 minutes or three hours. Turn on ambient music, put headphones in, got to a quiet room, go to a large courtyard. Each of us has a preferred way of focusing, so find out what works and commit to using it whenever you have filtered out your “do it now” task.


4. Switching Mode (Multi-Tasking) – 

Multi-tasking happens when our attentional filter tells us that many things are important at once. It happens when you search for keys every morning or try to remember that it’s garbage day, or look at unlabeled spices in a cupboard when cooking. Using your thinking brain for actions that could be habitual takes energy away from the sustained attention brain. This is too often the case in our busy lives. People we may associate with productive multi-tasking may in fact be highly efficient ‘mono-taskers’, with rote memory for the regular tasks. 


Prevent Decision Fatigue.

Make the simple decisions simple.

A billion pressing things? Get it all out on a whiteboard or paper or index cards that you can see regularly. This isn’t a list, it’s a brain dump.

Consistently misplacing things? Keep regularly used objects in the same space. Label irregularly used items. Use muscle memory.

Trying to remember to do that one thing today? Place a reminder object or note near the door, or a place where you will look.

For clothes, events and meals, make a choice once and stick with it for a week, a month, or a season.

At work, choose to block out alerts and other communications while you focus on a task for a given amount of time.


Bottom line: prevent distractions, make it rote, and get it out of your head.

When stressors arrive, know that you’ve done your best with your brain modes. Be realistic with your skills and timeframes and pressure will release.