The myth of productive multitasking


Neurologically, it is impossible for our brain to multitask. When we are trying to do more than one thing at a time, we are not really processing many things at the same time. We are in fact rapidly switching our attention from one task to another.

According to several recent neurological studies, the more things we try to pay attention to at any given time, the more our performance at all of them suffers.

That’s the very reason why it’s never a good idea to talk on a cell phone while driving. By trying to focus on two things at once, we decrease our reaction times to the same level as someone driving under influence of alcohol.

Every time we switch the focus of our attention from one subject to another, we end up paying the cost of cognitive switching. Because in order to take action, our brain has to load the context of what we are doing into working memory.

If we are constantly switching the focus of our attention, we are forcing our brain to spend time and effort loading, unloading, and reloading contexts over and over again.

That’s why by Unitasking we are focussing our attention on only one thing at a time, we are allowing our brain to load the context into working memory once, which means we can focus energy on actually accomplishing the task at hand.

Still, most of us suffer from multitasking almost daily. Our attention is already being pulled in millions of directions daily. Smartphone usage is a case in point. On an average we end up checking our phone 110 times a day – that means we are spending more than 20 days every year glued to our smartphone!

How productive is that?

Habits like these which encourages us to multitask eventually makes us mentally exhausted, spiritually disheartened, and cognitively unproductive.

But it’s hard to let go of these habits because we’ve conditioned our brain to send misleading signals to our body.

Research has shown that when we multitask ‘successfully’, we activate the reward mechanism in our brain which releases dopamine, the happy hormone.

This dopamine rush makes multitaskers feel so good that they get addicted to this hormonal rush which leads them to believe they are being effective when in fact they’re not.

Multitasking also results in the release of stress hormones, like adrenaline, which has negative effects on our health in the long-term and also leads to short-term memory loss.

That means that the little information we do take in when we’re multitasking is more difficult to remember at a later stage. So even though we might enjoy the thrill of multitasking and think it’s effective, it’s time to think again.

Now you’re probably getting desperate to find out how to get rid of this multitasking habit so you can find real productivity. As always there is no easy answer. You simply have to commit to it and have the self-discipline to stick to one task at a time.

Avoid having many programs open at once on your computer unless you need them to do this one task. You can get apps which block your social media (and even your email) except for certain times of the day.

Make sure that you also take breaks in your unitasking because that’s when your brain is at it’s most effective and hence working it’s hardest. That means it may need a 5-10 minute breather every 45 minutes or so to help stay focused.

This could be going for a little walk, a stretch or a cup of tea or rewarding yourself with 5 minutes by reading a blog or twitter. Just make sure you have a time limit to get back to your unitasking!

Few other Tips for Effective Unitasking :

Eliminate any outside distractions – just as when you are driving and need to focus on directions: you turn down the radio, similarly, you need to eliminate workplace distractions.

Schedule time to unitask: if you know you have an important project or a big decision, schedule an exclusive time to devote all of your attention to that one task.

Choose the right time of day to unitask: Pick a time when you’ll have the fewest distractions, or work on it over the weekend. Sometimes you can accomplish a task that might take you the entire workday to do, in an hour on a Sunday.

Allocate a specific amount of time: When people first take up meditation, they often become frustrated that they can’t still the mind and focus their concentration for very long. Meditation teachers often recommend that you schedule just a short amount of time, like 5 minutes, it might make it look less daunting.

Disconnect: turn off an e-mail, phones, Whatsapp, etc. for a period that you’re unitasking. If you can’t
disconnect completely, silence your devices and disable notifications. You can also set your phone to go directly to voicemail or set up an auto-reply on your e-mail to let people know when you’ll be available again, and how they can reach you or a colleague in the case of an emergency.

Clear your desk: If it’s messy and you happen to catch a glimpse of some paperwork or a post-it note with a reminder, you might be tempted to focus some of your attention on those things, as well.

Face a wall: If you are on an important call or need to clear your head, turn your chair around to face a wall or the door.

One conscious breath: a technique that stems from ancient meditation practice is to direct your attention to your breath. Don’t try to slow or change your normal breathing pattern; just become consciously aware of it.

Using 3:9 method: in a single day, you can try to finish 3 major tasks and 9 minor tasks. A major task is any activity that requires about 30 minutes of focussed concentration; all other tasks like a short phone call, email reply, reading few articles or some other household chores can be classified as a minor task.

This simply means that as long as you set aside large chunks of your time for major tasks, you can accomplish a lot in a day. Even if you are interrupted in the middle you will be far more realistic about your own goals and achievements. Which should definitely help you in keeping stress and recovery in balance?

Just keep in mind that “We are what we repeatedly do. So do make a conscious habit of continuous and incremental improvement and see the magical transformation within you.”


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