You may think you can do everything at once, but you can't — and shouldn't.
Science has shown that when people multitask, they become more easily distracted and less productive, score lower on tests for recalling information, and make more errors. The reason is simple: the brain cannot devote equal attention to multiple tasks that require high-level brain function.
"For older adults, multitasking increases the chance of making more serious mistakes," says Lydia Cho, a psychologist and neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. "For instance, you could begin to pay bills, switch to another task, and then forget to go back and finish. Or you could get distracted juggling so many things that you forget to take your medication, or even take it twice."
Older adults especially struggle with multitasking because aging brains have more trouble blocking distractions. Distractions can impair their working memory — the capacity to hold and access information over a brief period.
"Working memory helps you perform everyday mental tasks, such as learning a telephone number and then entering it into a smartphone, and following a conversation," says Cho. "It also helps you conduct complex tasks, like reasoning, comprehension, and learning."
Mono, not multi
The solution to breaking free from multitasking is to monotask, meaning you focus on only one job until it's completed. "This approach lowers the burden on working memory, reduces your vulnerability to distraction, and helps you complete the task more efficiently and quickly," says Cho.
Effective monotasking revolves around managing time well, working for brief periods, blocking distractions, and managing stress. Here are several strategies that can help you improve in these areas.
List only two daily priorities. People get caught in the multitasking trap by taking on too many projects. When faced with multiple to-do items, choose the top two and leave the others for another day. "Write them into a weekly or daily planner, or add them to your phone or computer's calendar, so you know which ones require attention," says Cho.
Set aside time. Create a defined time frame for your task and commit to it. "The important part about blocking out time is respecting it," says Cho.
Work in intervals. Research has found that working in intervals helps with monotasking, especially for people who struggle with attention. With intervals, you work for a set time followed by a brief mental break, and then you repeat the cycle until the task is finished. (See "A time for intervals.") "The back-and-forth between work and rest helps establish a rhythm, where your brain knows when to work and when to rest," says Cho.
A time for intervals
A popular interval method is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you set a 25-minute timer and work straight through, followed by a five-minute break, and then repeat. (You can adjust the work time as needed.) There are many apps for smartphones and computers that follow the Pomodoro Technique, such as Pomodoro, Forest, and Focus Keeper.
Block distractions. One study found that a three-second interruption can double your risk of making errors when performing a task. Create a distraction-free environment when monotasking. Stay away from the Internet, TV, and other stimuli. Turn off your phone, or set it to "do not disturb" to block calls and notifications. "Every time you switch from a task to a distraction and then back, it takes time and brain energy to refocus, and the work ends up taking longer than it should," says Cho.
Manage stress. Spikes in the stress hormone cortisol diminish working memory storage and retrieval, according to Cho. "Anything you can do to reduce and manage stress can support the brain for monotasking," she says. For example, do more aerobic exercise, schedule regular social engagements, devote time to a spiritual or religious practice, or consider psychotherapy.
Practice being in the moment. Train your brain for monotasking by practicing ways to stay present and focused. For instance, do a daily five- to 10-minute meditation: silently count your breaths in repeated sets of 10. Reading is another great exercise; set aside 10 to 20 minutes every day to read, and take breaks when your attention drifts.
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