Is Your Busy Life Making You Fat?

obese man holding double cheeseburger

( — According to a new study, trying to balance too many unrelated tasks can result in self-discipline sabotage. As a result, you may find it harder to control your temper, resist fattening foods, or stick to your exercise routine.


Because doing things like compulsively checking your smartphone every two minutes as you help your kids do their homework, or frequently shifting between different tasks on the job, can exhaust the “executive function” of the brain.

The researchers behind the study, which is published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, have concluded that our brains are only wired to shift mental gears a limited number of times before the intellectual resources required for self control are exhausted. After a certain point, people become more prone to such behavior as emotional outbursts or cheating on their diet.

How does multi-tasking undermine healthy eating?

In one experiment, the volunteers were asked to think abstractly about one topic, think in more concrete or technical terms about another, or combine the two types of thought. Afterwards, the volunteers were offered a bitter-flavored beverage and told of its health benefits. Those who switched back and forth between concrete and abstract thought drank one-third the amount of the bitter beverage than did volunteers who were only asked to use one type of thought, thus demonstrating less self-control in healthy eating than did non-multi-taskers, the study found.

This finding could also apply to sticking to a weight-loss diet, which requires daily self-discipline, the researchers point out. Multi-tasking could make you more prey to the temptations of distracted eating, a common problem when people are stressed out by a hectic, juggling lifestyle.

What’s the effect of multi-tasking on physical fitness?

In another experiment, a group of bilingual volunteers were either asked to answer questions in one language or switch between two languages. The participants were then asked to perform a physical task: squeezing a handgrip as long as possible. People who answered questions in one language were able to endure for twice as long, suggesting that they had much greater self-control to tough it out on a physical level because their brains weren’t exhausted by the demands of thinking in two different languages.

Physical endurance and sustained mental motivation are both key elements for sticking to a workout routine, noted researcher Ryan Hamilton of Emory University.

So…what should you do?

“It’s smart to focus on one task at a time, instead of shifting back and forth between activities,” says Kathleen Vohs, one of the study’s authors. “It helps to conserve mental energy to do the tough stuff, such as staying motivated to stick your diet and work out regularly, despite the many frustrations, temptations, and obstacles that make sustaining a healthy lifestyle over the long haul so daunting.”

And from a business perspective, the researchers note, self-control and single-minded focus, even in the face of the tedious tasks and myriad distractions that pop up during the workday, can boost your job performance.

The bottom line on multi-tasking? Reducing the frequency with which you bounce from task to task to task can help make you healthier, wealthier…and thinner.