With the holidays fast approaching, many of you may be feeling the crunch to get a ridiculously long list of tasks accomplished in record time.
If you’re like many people, multitasking as a means to respond to the growing demands of an over-scheduled, hectic pace of life seems to be the new marker of efficiency. You may even consider yourself a master multitasker. But in truth, there is no such thing.
In order to even get close to accomplishing more than one task simultaneously requires that at least one task be so second nature that we can literally do it without thinking (i.e. walking and chatting), or that the tasks involve totally different cognitive areas of the brain (i.e. reading and listening to instrumental music). Our brains simply cannot process more than one activity in any given area or center at the same time.
So what about all those people (perhaps including you) who claim to be experts at multitasking? Turns out we’re not multitasking at all. What we’re actually doing is ‘serial tasking’ or ‘task switching.’
Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, says we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. End of story. He goes on to say, “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.”
When we juggle a phone call with checking email and making breakfast while keeping an eye on the coffee, what we’re really doing is jumping from one task to another, over and over. Our brains are constantly starting and stopping the individual tasks, interrupting each to go back to the other.
While it may feel as though we are accomplishing so much more than if we focused on one task at a time, there is now compelling research indicating that serial tasking (let’s call it what it is) is actually both ineffective and inefficient. In fact, we could be losing up to 40 percent of productivity as a result. Turns out all this switching back and forth takes more time, and is less effective (more prone to errors) than just doing one thing at a time.
Doing one thing at a time, and focusing our attention in the moment, seems to have become a lost art. But like anything else, it can be re-learned with a little effort and practice.
Accepting that our minds can only truly accomplish one task at a time is key to adopting a new approach to our busy days. Maintaining a singular focus seems at odds with how we often feel compelled to be, both at work and in our personal lives. But if we truly want to become more productive and effective, we need to resist the pressure to multitask and quiet our minds, putting our full concentration and attention on doing just one thing at a time, and doing it well.
The benefits are numerous. Aside from the researched and documented increase in productivity and efficiency you’ll experience, you’ll also retain new information better, make fewer mistakes, stay safer, and feel more relaxed. Your relationships will also improve as you learn to be a better listener – no more reading emails or checking messages while your friend or partner is talking to you.
There are also all the associated benefits of the mindfulness of focusing your attention in any given moment, also referred to as ‘being in the now.’ Stress reduction, better sleep patterns, and increased happiness are all associated with mindfulness techniques and practices.
This holiday season, don’t wait for New Year’s to make your resolutions. Why not adopt a new and healthier habit when tackling your to-do list? Ditch the multitasking and learn to enjoy the art of doing just one thing at a time. Your mind and body will thank you.