Multi-tasking is challenging for many individuals and has become an enviable trait in our productivity-driven culture. Sure, we all can literally walk and chew gum at the same time, or simultaneously talk on the phone while folding laundry with finesse. That’s because those tasks use different parts, or very little, of our brains.
The problem comes when we try to do similar tasks that use the same grey matter, neuroscientists say. For example, it’s virtually impossible to carry on a coherent conversation at the same time you’re typing out a mistake-free email, because both activities require language. Or think about being in a staff meeting. You can’t actively participate if the communication function of your brain is engaged in reading and writing text messages. If you concentrate on one, the other task suffers.
What we consider to be “multi-tasking” is when we are able to shift our attention back and forth between multiple tasks. For instance, if you’re writing a report and periodically taking a break to respond to email. That constant switching of focus is actually counterproductive because your concentration never fully engages on one thing – which is often referred to as being “in the zone.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) cites several studies and concludes that when we attempt more than one task at a time, especially complex tasks, productivity declines. Dividing attention among multiple responsibilities leaves you feeling frazzled, and that reduces productivity. A decrease in productivity increases stress. And so the cycle goes.
Through task-switching experiments, scientists measured the time the brain takes to adjust the mental control settings when ending one task and starting another. The findings revealed that the toggling between tasks costs as much as 40 percent of potential productivity.
“Thus, multi-tasking may seem efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error,” the APA paper states.
Technology places more and more tools at our fingertips to continually divert our attention. But when one device can bring us phone calls, text messages and email, not to mention Internet browsers, games, videos, 24-hour news, Facebook and Twitter, how can we stay on task…on just ONE task?
Here are steps to help you “one-task”:
- Pledge to handle only one responsibility at a time.
- Block out the amount of time you think is needed to accomplish each task. Schedule your most demanding tasks when you know you are most alert during the day.
- While working on a task, eliminate all possible distractions. Silence your telephone and text messages. Turn off email notifications. Close your office door, or if possible, take your work away from the bustle of your office, such as into a library or conference room.
- Set aside another period of time (or a few periods, if that helps) each day to handle email and phone messages. Knowing there is time designated to handle those will help you focus on the main task before you.
- Enjoy the satisfaction of fully focusing on one thing at a time!