I was looking up something else entirely when I came across an old Forbes article about multi-tasking and how it can actually damage one’s brain. The article was published in 2014; it references a study from Stanford University which had attempted to discern what made multi-taskers good at what they do. What the researchers came up with surprised them – multi-taskers aren’t good at things. They aren’t even as good at multi-tasking as those who habitually focus on taking one thing at a time.
Stanford published this study in 2009.
Since then, there has been a growing body of writing promoting focus rather than embracing distraction – which is a pretty good description of multi-tasking (and I speak as someone who has to remind myself not to multi-task more often than I’d like). There’s Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, both of which have impressed me greatly – my very first blog post (and doesn’t that take me back!) was inspired by Deep Work.
The plain fact is that the human brain can truly focus on only one thing at a time. According to another study published in 2015 by the University of London, trying to tackle multiple cognitive tasks at once can actually make us less intelligent – declines in IQ of up to 15 points were seen in some multi-tasking men.
Multi-tasking isn’t even efficient from a time perspective. The brain takes time to switch gears – if we’ve been working with numbers and stop to rush off an email, our brains have to shift from math mode to writing mode. If we leave a task unfinished while we go do something else and then leave that unfinished as well to move to a third issue, we will have to keep changing those gears, back and forth, and all these gear-switches spend our time.
Think of those incremental time savings, and let’s focus on doing one thing at a time. Focused work on a single project seems to be the way to maintain (maybe improve?) our IQs, save us time, make us more efficient and effective. Let’s take a minute when we’re done – or as far along as we can get at the moment – and breathe, allowing our brains to relax before the next gear change.
Then, let’s tackle the next project – and only that, for as long as we’re working on it.
We can commit to stay focused, keep our minds on what we’re doing, and not try to do more than we can do at our best. We can decide not to check our phones for email, messages, or the latest news while we’re in a meeting – and we can stick to it.
We can strive for deep focus, deep work, deep thought. And for living in the present task, rather than chasing future tasks. This will stand us in so much better stead than trying to make our brains do what they simply cannot accomplish effectively.
What techniques do you use to keep focused on the one thing you need to do now?
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Until next Wednesday –