Imagine working calmly on your latest project, when the phone rings on your desk.
“Bad news,” your teammate tells you down the line, “your client needs that work by tomorrow, I’m afraid–a whole week earlier than we had planned.”
You’re stressed out and slightly panicked. But how do you react?
Do you continue as you were, unfazed? Or do you fly into multi-tasking mode, trying to get everything done as soon as possible?
If the latter sounds like you, you’re not alone. Many of us believe (at least subconsciously) that doing multiple things at once is more efficient, or we may default to multitasking in reaction to a stressful event.
If you simply can’t stop doing everything at once, or if you’ve always got a hundred tabs and programs open, this blog is for you.
I’ll explain how stressful multitasking really is, and how you can kick the habit to regain your focus and calm.
What Happens When We Multitask?
It’s easy to do too much at once in today’s connected, busy world. You know the feeling–toggling between email, Slack, WhatsApp, that spreadsheet, and those three documents you’re writing?
As much as we’d like to think that we’re working on them simultaneously, it turns out our brains just aren’t wired that way. While we convince ourselves that we’re being more productive, MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller describes what’s really going on in the brain: it turns out that what we’re really doing is “switching from one task to another very rapidly.”
Each time we switch, we incur a cognitive ‘switching cost.’ Rather like currency exchange fees, these can be barely noticeable with each switch, but they end up decreasing our efficiency quite considerably.
Here’s how these costs work at the cerebral level: whenever our attention jumps from one task to another, our prefrontal cortex and striatum metabolize the same substance they require to stay focused–oxygenated glucose. The more we shift as we try to juggle numerous tasks, the faster that rate of metabolism.
After a short period, we run out of cognitive resources, leading to confusion and tiredness.
But that’s not all–our brains actually release more cortisol and adrenaline when we try to accomplish more tasks. If you’ve ever felt muddled, disoriented, or “blacked out” after multitasking, you’ve felt these stress hormones at work.
All in all, the disadvantages of multitasking include:
- Slower performance
- Impaired working (short-term) memory
- Decreased creativity
- Increased likelihood of errors, and
- Physical and mental exhaustion.
Why Do We Multitask?
So if doing too much at once is stressful, less effective, and tiring, why do we do it at all?
The short and not-so-sweet answer is that multitasking is addictive.
While the human prefrontal cortex is responsible for focused attention, it also craves novel stimulation. This novel stimulation comes in the form of distractions like uploading an Instagram post or replying to a text, each of which sends a rewarding shot of opioids to our brain’s pleasure center.
That reinforces the behavior, making multitasking a pretty hard habit to kick.
If you’re a frequent multi-tasker or often catch yourself trying to juggle more than you can manage, the Doing Too Much At The Same Time Stress Coaching Card is relevant to you.
Here’s what you can do about it.
5 Ways To Stay Focused
With multitasking, your goal is to break a reward-seeking cycle. That means you need to be committed to behavioral change and resist the siren call of various different distractions or tasks.
These five tips might seem like small changes, but they can actually be very effective.
1. Eliminate interruptions
Every interruption is an invitation to multitask, from that SMS beep to the ping of a new email in your inbox. Recognizing them for what they are is the first step, and eliminating them is the second.
This might mean:
- Switching your phone to silent while you work
- Closing that email tab, or
- Shutting your office door when you need to focus.
The fewer multitasking “invitations” you receive, the easier it will be to focus.
2. Make Time For Distractions
Compartmentalizing is the premise behind various productivity strategies such as the Pomodoro technique. Another example technique is ‘cluttertasking,’ which involves doing specific tasks at certain times during the day.
By scheduling some “focus time” where you work and “distraction time” as short breaks, you might find it easier to concentrate during the former.
Two examples include working uninterrupted for 45 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break, and checking your email once at the start of the day, then once at the end.
3. Make a List
Many of us are seduced into multitasking when we remember something we need to do. Perhaps it’s a quick email you forgot to send yesterday, or an invoice you forgot to pay.
You can prevent these smaller tasks from breaking your focus by writing them down when they spring to mind. Consider buying a special notepad for your “Things to do” list.
Write them down when you remember them, and get them all done later on.
4. Take a Deep Breath
According to studies, we attribute something like 50% of our distractions to ourselves. By this, I’m talking about the urge to get up and boil the tea kettle, or a craving to check social media.
When you feel tempted to succumb to a distraction, try this:
- Take a deep breath and fill your lungs
- Exhale slowly, emptying them completely.
Yes, all you did was take a deep breath, but it can also be a way to refocus and break the habit of giving in.
This also develops your ability to resist temptations and concentrate on the one task at hand, helping you focus on your main goal for longer.
5. Create Your Own Rewards
Each time you give in to a distraction, your brain releases a reward. You can also ‘outsmart’ this system and retrain your brain by creating your own rewards.
Think of a nice way to treat yourself for sticking to one task, and reward yourself with it when you’re done. Chances are, you’ll be able to create a more positive habit of concentrating.