One thing at a time

If you think you’re getting a lot done when you simultaneously listen to a podcast, send a text message and work on that report, think again. Multitasking, or rapidly switching back and forth between tasks, is not only unproductive, it can actually damage your brain.

Research shows that multitasking is a weakness and not a strength. It impairs learning, concentration and memory. Multitasking adversely affects the grades of students. It also has a negative impact on health, work performance and productivity.

Biologically, we are incapable of multitasking. John Medina, a well-known molecular biologist and professor, explains how the human brain goes through four steps each time a change in focus occurs – distraction, disengagement, re-engagement and adapting to a new task. If you repeatedly go through these four steps, you end up losing a significant amount of productive working time over the course of a day – even though you may feel like you have accomplished a lot.

Studies show that people who regularly switch from one task to another and then back again experience more anxiety and depression than those who focus on one task at a time. Chronic multitaskers are more stressed and distracted by unimportant information. They also produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

Of course there are some activities that your brain can juggle together, such as talking on your cell phone and walking or having a conversation over dinner. These sorts of activities can be carried out simultaneously because they place less demand on the prefrontal cortex of your brain.

However, because we can do some tasks at the same time does not mean that we can do any tasks at the same time, particularly complex ones such as talking on a cell phone and driving. And what about talking on your cell phone while walking across a very hectic city intersection? To survive the walk, your best bet is to put your phone away and give your undivided attention to the traffic.

The simultaneous processing of tasks that require attention and problem-solving is tough on the brain. It is particularly tough when we switch from one technological device to the other. The University of Sussex found that men and women who frequently used several types of technology at the same time had less grey matter in a key part of the brain that processes information. According to the University of California, multitasking with gadgets shortens the attention span – making it harder to focus and form memories.

Technology is unstoppable and it is very much part of our lives. As much as it is a helpful tool, it is entirely up to us to use it properly so that we don’t suffer the consequences of poor mental health or physical accidents.

My advice to you is to isolate your tasks and consciously do one thing at a time. When you exercise, only exercise. When you read, only read. When you meditate, only meditate. When you send an email, only send an email.

American author, investor and entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss, breaks it down even further and highlights nine stressful habits that entrepreneurs and office workers should strive to eliminate. You can read them here.

My final thought: The next time you engage in a face-to-face conversation, put your cell phone away and listen to what they say.

If you have thoughts or comments on multitasking and how we can make better use of our time, please feel free to write them in the comment box below.

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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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