Slow Down and Single-Task
It can be crazy. Feeling rushed (and maybe a little 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.
You're in a hurry, and mentally review your to-do list: pick up your child 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.
We're all given the same 24 hours.
When you decide to multi-task, you're inviting interruption and distraction. What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth between jobs.
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 experience cognitive gaps, and have difficulty
- paying attention
- organizing their thoughts
- filtering out irrelevancies
- recalling important information
- switching smoothly from one task to another
So no, you can't have a real conversation while scrolling through social media.
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.
Even more disturbing, 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!
5 ways to find focus and clarity
1. Decide to single-task.
2. 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.
3. 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's 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.
4. Close your door.
In the "old days," people did this when they needed to concentrate. You need to figuratively close your door on electronic distractions if you want to be productive and creative. You need to restrain your response to texts or emails if you want to nurture relationships. You need to be immersed in your task to do your best work.
So 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.
5. Learn to say no.
In a perfect world, "focus on one thing at a time" sounds ideal. But sometimes it seems impossible.
Establish boundaries between work and leisure, home chores and relationship time. This will depend on your profession and your other responsibilities, but as much as possible keep these areas distinct. If it's work time and your child needs you, ask for five minutes to finish your task (or at least come to a stopping point). Then keep your promise and give your full attention to your child. That way you're still limiting your focus to what's right in front of you, which lets you be far more effective.
Plan ahead as much as possible. Every Sunday, make a list or a schedule. If you know you have a project due at work or your kid has a piano recital or an orthodontist appointment, block out ample time so you can be fully present for all of it. If your schedule has no white space or zero "me" time, consider which commitments are unnecessary, and let them go. You may have to save volunteering at the animal shelter for when your kids are older, or ask another family member to pitch in with laundry or grocery shopping.
Free yourself from the illogic of the fear of missing out. You are finite, your time and energy are finite – you can't do everything. You're going to miss some things. So is everyone else. It's okay!
When we try to multi-task, we're less productive, more stressed, and ultimately less happy. With focus, we can do our very best.
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