If you’re anything like me, you’ll have struggled to multitask. Perhaps you’ve been surprised at how easily you switch off from one task when you’re trying to do two things at once. Even something as seemingly simple as texting while watching TV demands a lot of cognitive energy. It’s actually pretty hard to reply to a message while giving the TV our full attention, which is why we often end up rewinding Breaking Bad after realising we’ve completely missed the last two minutes.
Curiously, despite the mounting scientific evidence that multitasking actually makes us less productive, we continue to treat it as an as aspirational trait. This holds especially true in the workplace. The theory goes that if we can reply to a client email and whip up a presentation in tandem, we’re getting more stuff done…right?
Actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth: multitasking makes us more prone to errors, impairs our performance and renders us ripe for distraction. Focusing on one task at a time boosts productivity, improves the quality of our work and can even make us happier.
The Myth of Multitasking
Have you ever tried reading a book while talking on the phone, or choosing something from a menu while talking to a friend? How about trying to park your car in an awkward space while listening to the radio? Chances are that you probably switched off from one of these tasks.
This is because our brains struggle to give their full attention to simultaneous tasks, which is why we often end up rereading pages of books, asking the waiter for more time to check out the menu and turning off the radio while we try to park!
Switching focus is pretty harmless when we’re doing something like reading, chatting or watching Netflix, but the game changes when it comes to things like driving, cycling or walking. It’s an established fact that using our phones while driving is dangerous. Our brains divert our attention to texting or talking and we become less aware of our surroundings – ergo, we are more susceptible to errors on the road.
It’s equally as important to be mindful of our surroundings as pedestrians, too. A recent study tested the ability to focus while using multimedia devices on the street. It put college students onto a virtual street and armed them with smartphones and audio devices. It found that the students listening to music or texting were more distracted, putting them at greater risk of collision with vehicles.
The Importance of Focusing on One Thing
The brain performs best when it can focus on one thing – or ‘monotask’. When we give a task our full attention, we are complete it more meaningfully, are less prone to errors and can get into a state of ‘flow’ (that awesome feeling of being completely and utterly engaged in what you’re doing).
A recent Dutch study supports this. The researchers found that people performed best at Sudoku and wordsearch puzzles when they completed the puzzles one at a time, rather than when multitasking. Similarly, an American study found that kids (unsurprisingly) got better exam results when they didn’t multitask revision, texting and Facebook.
So, I think I agree with science – it’s pretty clear that we should eschew multitasking in favour of focusing. Here are some ways that you can improve your focus.
Find Your Distractors
What distracts you in your day-to-day life? Is it texting, emailing, chatting to colleagues? Try to complete this sentence at least three times: ‘I get distracted by…’
Use this to find out what you need to avoid in order to focus properly. If you’re a compulsive texter, put your phone on silent and out of reach at work and social occasions. If you find that colleagues distract you, try ‘plugging in’: wear headphones and listen to some classical music. This will improve your focus and deter people from disturbing you unless it’s urgent.
If you’re a sucker for your inbox, try imposing some structure in your email checking schedule. Check your email only three times per day and work through your emails in batches. If you are required to check your inbox more regularly, where possible, do it after completing a task and answer the most important emails first.
Get Into a State of Flow
Have you ever been fully absorbed in doing something that you’ve completely lost track of time? As well as boosting your productivity, doing one thing at a time makes it more likely to experience ‘flow’, the mental state of being fully immersed in doing something. By encouraging feelings of fulfilment, the state of flow is known to foster happiness.
Artists are famous for being so in the zone that they forget to eat or sleep. This is not limited to art – anyone can experience flow, from businessmen to nurses, to teachers to athletes. The state of flow is characterised by a feeling of mastery, in which one’s attention is so fully absorbed that there is no room to get distracted by thoughts of other things. It is not possible to experience flow when you multi-task, since your full attention is required.
Get into the flow by committing your undivided attention to a task. Try it with something that isn’t too complex or too easy: if it’s too difficult and you may become frustrated, and if it’s too easy you risk boredom.
These simple changes can greatly improve your focus and reduce stress. You will also probably find that dedicating your attention to a task will make you feel a lot more satisfied when you have completed it. (Remember how great it feels to turn in a piece of work you truly completed to the best of your ability?) In turn, this mindfulness can make you feel happier.
So, say it with me: No to multitasking! Use your brain to its full capacity and free yourself from distractions for a more productive and mindful you. I promise you’ll see the benefits both at home and at work.
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