Sunday, 29 August 2010 22:49

It's 10:30am - Do you know where your brain is? The myth of multi-tasking is debunked

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Fact:  The brain cannot multitask.  We’ve spent two decades singing the praises of a brain function that is a myth, can’t be done, is destructive.  We’ve prided ourselves on our ability to do it, and coached others to embrace it in order to get more done and to get ahead.

The research is in and it’s conclusive: The brain just doesn’t work that way.  It focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time, not in multiples.  The brain has a strong ability to pay attention, but not to more than one thing at a time.

Sure, we can monitor one thing and (partially) focus on another.  But something is likely to suffer from this unequal distribution of our attention.  The brain simply can’t process attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

Here’s what the neuroscientists tell us happens when we try to jump from one thing to another:  the brain gets an alert to shift attention, it searches for a rule about how to do the new request, then activates that rule.  Our brain’s focus is now on the new item –until another item shows up.  Then it disengages from the previous item, and repeats the pattern of shift-find-a -rule- activate again.

That process takes time and energy. That process has to happen, in that sequence, each time we shift from one task to another.  Result:  we lose track of where we were, backtrack, often need to start over on the task.

Multitasking, as we know it, is a constant chain of interruptions to our brain’s processing.  Studies show that a person, once interrupted, will take 50 percent longer to complete a task.  Studies also tell us how destructive our attempts to multitask our brains can be.  The headlines, the laws, and yes, Oprah’s declaration of our cars as “Cell Free Zones” all speak to the fallacy of multitasking when it comes to cell phone usage while driving.

Didn’t we suspect that it wasn’t working all that well for us?  Switching back and forth, working in a constant fog, sitting here… with…our minds over there.

Technology is our friend, but not when we use it to further distract ourselves.  Remember, each furtive re-check of our email requires another switching sequence in our brains.

Tips for You:

  • Minimize (better yet, close down) the email browser and turn off the audio that announces arriving messages.
  • Set a timer for 50 minute intervals.  Use this time to focus on one single task.
  • Establish “no interruptions unless the building is burning” times.  Be an example to your staff and co-workers.
  • Close your door (if you have one) and/or post a sign: PROJECT WORK;  Will be available at ______.

As our kids return to school, we admonish them to “stay focused”.  And so should we.

If you want to know more, I highly recommend Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina. NY Times bestseller, 2008.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 August 2010 22:52
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