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Why Multitasking is a Myth

How to Improve Your Attentive Capacity

Do you multitask in order to achieve more, faster? I did too before I realized that multitasking is actually a myth.

Not too long ago, my team was waiting for some key information from the US Food and Drug Administration that would influence the design of a pivotal clinical trial. We’d waited a long time for their assessment, and when it finally came through, I called a meeting to discuss the information. Most team members were scattered throughout the United States and Europe, so I set up a teleconference. As we discussed these critical materials from our locations in various places throughout the world, I heard a cacophony of sounds in the background: someone tapping on a keyboard, a baby crying, a doorbell ringing, cars honking, the shuffling of papers, and more.

Was anyone listening? How much of this important information was anyone hearing, much less absorbing and understanding?

Doing one thing at a time is no longer enough. Most of us practice multitasking, and it is ingrained in our daily lives—constantly texting, writing emails, checking Facebook, talking on the phone, listening to podcasts, catching up on the news. We think we are being efficient, but the reality is that the constant interruption and distraction that comes from multi-tasking disrupts our ability to stay focused and present. Over time, it puts you at a disadvantage when working on important projects, juggling your job and family, or simply staying engaged with whatever you are doing in the present.

Web surfing has been termed “the new secondhand smoke.” Even sitting next to someone multi-tasking on a laptop could affect your learning and performance, according to a 2012 Canadian study. Not only did students who multi-tasked during class have reduced comprehension of lecture material, those in view of multi-taskers also had reduced comprehension.

Multi-tasking was extolled for years as a key trait of high achievers, and it was practiced by many—if not most—in corporate settings. However, in recent years, researchers have proven that the belief that engaging in several tasks at once means we are more productive is a myth. Medical research reveals that the brain does not really do tasks simultaneously. Further, if we do too many things at once, our brains lose the capacity for deep thinking altogether. When we divide our attention among tasks, what we’re really doing is “task switching”—that is, focusing for a brief period on one task, then another, then another. In each moment, we only focus long enough to feel (and look) busy but never enough to truly engage with the problem and develop a novel and effective solution to it. Our attention is expended by switching tasks instead of on becoming fully engaged with any single activity.

Rather than saving time, multi-tasking actually costs us time, and it also makes mistakes more likely. As we rapidly switch contexts, we actually lose focus, and it may take longer to become re-engaged in a single task and achieve a deep level of thought. This is not a recipe for success.

You can expand your attentive capacity through regular practices, including:

1. Alternate nostril breathing

2. Meditation

3. Journaling

4. Spending time outdoors

5. Physical activity

6. Healthy and regular eating

7. Getting plenty of sleep.

Our most precious resource is time. But even in an endless time frame, without the ability to focus, it’s tough to get the job done. We’d all like to be more focused, self-motivated, and capable of achieving high levels of productivity without getting mired in the myth of multi-tasking. Minimizing distractions and directing our attention on specific tasks or interactions can greatly improve our impact at work and in life.

To learn more about Julie and her work, visit her at http://www.julierosenbergmd.com/

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