“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl isn’t giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” ~Albert Einstein
Most heavy multitaskers rate their ability to do many things at once as very high on surveys. When tested, their perception is wrong. This ability rarely proves to exist. Multitasking may speed you through your to-do list, but it also makes you more likely to make mistakes and less likely to retain information.
You only have 100% of your attention to give. If you divide it up, something suffers. For better results, instead of trying to multitask, consider becoming a serial unitasker.
Psychologists Strayer and Watson from the University of Utah have found that those who talk on cell phones while driving have proven to be worse drivers than those with a legal limit of alcohol in their blood. When driving or even walking while multitasking can prove to be dangerous. Hands-free phones are less dangerous because they don’t impair your vision but they still impair your cognition.
Even the younger smartphone, e-reader, video game generation who grew up with abilities to shift attention quickly do not show any increase in abilities to effectively multitask than their parents. Only a small percentage of the population, maybe 2%, represent what scientists call “supertaskers” than can defy the odds and split their attention effectively.
True geniuses and those who achieve mastery know how to focus not split their attention.
Attention is limited in capacity. Complex tasks require both focus and the flexibility combined with the ability to block out distractions. In other words, you have to be able to not only tune out or suppress some input, you also have to know how to turn up the volume on what matters most right now. This is called “unitasking.”
Here are seven tips to help you unitask:
1. Carve out 20-30 minute slots to work. You can stack your slots but it is easier to keep your time “sacred” in smaller chunks. Remember to turn off your phone and close the door. You might let people know your schedule so they don’t judge you as rude or inaccessible.
2. Quiet internal distractions. The chatter in your brain tends to be stuck in the past or the future instead of the present. You have two choices:
- Suppress your concerns and deliberately move your attention into the present or
- Let go of what is not resolved from the past or you are worrying about in the future.
Consider these three trigger points – 1) a sense of security, 2) a feeling of control, or 3) a need to be accepted, respected or liked. When listening to the conversation in your head, are you trying to regain one of these three things from the past? Or is your fear of not getting one of these needs met transfixing your thoughts in the future? What can you do to let go of your regrets? What can you do to trust that the future will turn out all right? You can ruminate and worry later. You can even designate a time for these thoughts on your schedule. Take a breath and come back to the present for the next 20-30 minute time slot.
3. Ban external distractions. Be aware of what steals your attention. This includes background noise such as a television or music with lyrics. When interrupted, make a conscious choice to return to the task at hand.
4. Take breaks every hour to move your body. This gives your brain a chance to process what you have worked on. When you return to your task, you can refresh your focus and produce new ideas more easily. If you don’t get up and move, it’s likely your mind will drift because you need a break anyway.
5. Think good thoughts. Positive emotions improve the brain’s executive function and encourage creative and strategic thinking. It is possible that the dopamine released when feeling happy, laughing or appreciating someone or something can increase your ability to multi-task. Improve your emotional balance by actively thinking about things that make you happy.
6. Leave things behind. When you turn to a new task, part of your brain is still thinking about the last one. Before starting something new, go for a walk, climb stairs, or do some deep breathing to clear your head.
7. Finally, learn how to say “no.” You have to take control of your time or other people will enjoy controlling it for you.