Many of us have (or had) jobs that require juggling two or three tasks at a time while continuing to be available to bosses or clients.  Or we meet the needs of two or three young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.

It can be crazy.  Rushed and overwhelmed, you repeatedly lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where you left off.  You can't give your attention to one thing at a time, so everything takes longer, and any minor holdup can become a major meltdown.

Before you know it, the day is over and you feel like you did nothing well.  Perhaps you commute, switching your attention between driving, making phone calls, and trying to get through that audio book everyone's talking about.

You're in a hurry, and mentally review your to-do list:  pick up your kid at school, get her to dance class, run to the post office and the grocery store, pick her up again, drive home fast to let the dog out before he has an accident you'll have to clean up, and either cook something for dinner or decide which takeout food everyone wants.  Answer some texts and emails, get your kid into bed, run over logistics with your spouse, and fall onto the couch with your cell phone and the TV remote.  Maybe you can relax before you fall asleep.

Time, the finite minutes of your life, slips away.  Once it passes, it's gone forever.

We're all given the same 24 hours.  We're told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently.  But if our attention is diffused, we actually accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.

When you decide to multi-task, you're actually inviting interruption and distraction.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth.

Many people think they're skilled at multi-tasking, but the brain doesn't actually work that way.  Our brains have to choose which information to process.  For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, and vice versa.  When you talk on the phone to your mother and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what Mom is saying.

Researchers at Stanford University found that multi-tasking is less productive than doing one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking takes more energy, so even simple tasks take longer than they should.  People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of information cannot pay attention, organize their thoughts, filter out irrelevancies, recall important information, or even switch between tasks as smoothly.

So no, you can't actually have a conversation while scrolling through social media.

Even more disturbing, a study at the University of London showed that multi-taskers experience IQ score declines similar to someone who has smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.  Their scores resembled those of an eight-year-old child.

In fact, multi-tasking may cause or indicate brain damage.  Research completed at the University of Sussex found that high multi-taskers (in this case, people who spend a lot of time texting while watching TV or answering email while talking on the phone) had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy and emotional control.

Tell me how people with less empathy and emotional control make good co-workers, marriage partners, parents, or neighbors!

4 Ways to Find Clarity

1.  Cut the buzz.
Many of us live and work with the constant background noise of radio, TV, or traffic.  Especially when the sounds are those of people talking, such as with news, ads, or co-workers, there is a constant drag on our brain's ability to focus.  Question your need for constant stimulation, and consider removing these noises if you can, since research shows that most people are more productive when working in silence.  If you feel you must have accompaniment, choose purely instrumental music.

2.  Decide to single-task.
Bouncing between tasks may seem to relieve boredom, but it drains our cognitive abilities.  Stick with one item until completion if you can.  If attention starts to wane, you can switch to a new task, but take a moment to leave yourself a note about where you were with the first one.  Then give the new task your full attention, again for as long as you can.  As you practice single-tasking, you'll stretch your attention span, develop sharper focus, and access greater creativity.

3.  Identify your elephants.
Most people have a long to-do list and choose to do the easiest things first so they can have the satisfaction of crossing something off the list.  The difficult tasks are pushed later to when the brain is already tired.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman suggests focusing on your two "elephants" when writing your to-do list.  These are the most important things you need to accomplish on that day, the ones to which you want to give your best efforts and attention.  If time allows, you can move on to other tasks.

4.  Close your door.
In the "old days," people did this when they really needed to concentrate.  You need to figuratively close your door on electronic distractions if you want to be productive and creative, and you cannot continually respond to texts or emails if you want to nurture relationships.  Remove text alerts from your phone, and put it in your bag or another room.  Close browser tabs and remove email alerts from your computer.  Check texts, voice mail, and email only at specific times during the day.

When we try to multi-task, we're less productive, more stressed, and ultimately less happy.  Choose to give your attention to things that really matter.  Focus on your priorities and let the rest go, without guilt or FOMO.

It's ironic that we get more done when we slow down.


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