Our brains simply aren’t wired for multitasking, no matter how much our technologically frenetic workplaces and lives demand it. So says a long line of research and popular articles. Being bombarded with an unrelenting stream of information actually makes it harder to pay attention, take in new information, solve problems and perform at our cognitive best.
Your brain on multitasking
The term ‘multitasking' is really a misnomer. While we think we are successfully doing several things at once, we are actually rapidly switching from one activity to another. Asking our brains to rapidly switch between tasks burns up available fuel fast, leaving us more exhausted. It also increases anxiety, raising our level of the stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn reduces our brain’s effectiveness.
Moreover, the act of juggling multiple tasks requires multiple small decisions. You have to first decide to switch your goal from the task at hand ("I want to do this now instead of that”) and then activate a rule to suit a different task ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). All these micro- decisions tax the brain, making you more prone to error and decision fatigue. The more decisions we have to make in any given day, the quicker our brain’s supply of vital nutrients is depleted.
So what’s the toll on our brains over time?
In a recent study of media multitasking published in PLOS one, researchers at Sussex found that people who heavily consumed multiple media sources at once had smaller grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with cognitive and emotional control. The study doesn’t prove that heavy media multitasking causes damage to the brain, and more studies are required, though it raises concern about the long-term effects of constant and unchecked distraction.
Are there situations where ‘multitasking’ works? Perhaps.
A recent study in Psychological Science highlighted in the HBR showed that our ability to juggle tasks and recall information depends on how we learned to do those things in the first place. When people were taught do two things simultaneously—learning a new motor skill while being distracted by a secondary task—they were more likely to be able to do them effectively next time. This doesn’t give multitasking a free pass. It just indicates that when you know you will be required to do two things at once, such as typing while listening in a meeting, it’s a good idea to learn and practice them together.
So what’s the antidote to divided attention? Focussing your attention and being more mindful about what you are doing in the moment.
Here are three things you can do to stay on task:
A University of Washington study found that people who had received an 8-week mindful mediation training were able to maintain focus when asked to perform multiple tasks within a short time. They had a better memory for the details, switched tasks less often, were less negative about the experience and reported greater attention and awareness.
Learning how to focus the mind and reign in its tendency to wander can help people feel less overwhelmed and anxious about information overload. John Doty, Stanford neurosurgeon and Director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, explains it this way: "By closing one's eyes and engaging in attention training through a mindfulness practice, not only does it diminish the negative physiologic effects of distraction, which can result in anxiety and fear, but it can increase one's ability to attend to important tasks and not have an emotional response to the often negative dialogue which is frequent in many individuals.”
Get in the flow.
Despite our mind's tendency to wander, our brains reap rich rewards when focussing for extended periods on tasks we love to perform well. A state of flow happens when we are fully immersed in an activity and feel an energising focus that engages us and raises our performance. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the concept of flow and studied peak performance, notes that flow happens when your skills are fully engaged in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.
Activities that are conducive to flow are naturally goal-focussed and vary between individuals. Next time you find yourself lost in a task stop and pay attention. Notice your breathing and what it feels like in your body compared to when you feel distracted. What got you in the flow? How can you add more flow activities to your day? The more you can choose tasks that generate that sense of flow at work or at home, the more you can expand your capacity to pay attention and reduce myriad distractions.
Choose your environment.
Planning ahead can help you focus on important activities and allow you to put aside a specific amount of time to get them done. This can mean eliminating distractions from your physical environment or workspace or asking people not to interrupt while you work on a certain task.
Pay attention to your energy levels. When you feel stuck on a task or short on new ideas, try moving to another location or going for a quick walk to stimulate your body and brain. Offering your senses something pleasurable can generate more positive emotions, relax and refuel your brain.