Posted by: Rachel Cates | January 24, 2011

Tips to Survive Multitasking Mayhem

Before you go patting yourself on the back for typing your memo and scheduling your massage at the same time, you might want to take a moment to observe new research that suggests multitasking is not only less effective than singletasking, but it can also lead to poor health.

In 2005, the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London conducted a study which revealed that workers distracted by e-mails and telephone calls suffered a drop in IQ more than double that of marijuana smokers.  That’s right! Potheads are more attentive than employees trying to do their work and talk on the phone at the same time!

The IQ drop is caused by the task-switching function in the brain that processes the rules associated with performing a specific task. The more complex the task, the more rules your brain will have to process, and if you are engaging in multiple activities simultaneously your brain will experience a delay ranging from mild to severe which will limit your ability to apply 100% of your brain power to any one activity.

Research conducted at Stanford University revealed that heavy multitaskers were less able to ignore irrelevant information and were less efficient at problem-solving than singletaskers.  In this study, singletaskers were able to disregard information unrelated to their goals.  Multitaskers were more distracted and failed to easily discern important versus trivial data, thus they were inefficient at problem solving and it took them longer to complete tasks.

These findings are a surprise to many people that have adopted multitasking as a way of life and feel that they are being creative and productive by doing two or more things at once.  Unlike times of boredom when you know that you have mentally checked-out and find yourself day-dreaming, when you multitask there is a release of the feel-good chemical dopamine which gives you a boost of energy and makes you feel as though you are being more effective than you actually are.  

Did you know that your brain processes new information differently when you multitask?  A region of the brain called striatum is activated when you are distracted or multitasking.  This area of the brain is used for processing habitual tasks such as driving a car or logging on to your computer, however, the knowledge is restrictive and is stored in your short-term memory which makes complex information difficult to recall or utilize fluidly.  When you are actively concentrating on one task, the hippocampus region is stimulated which enables you to store and remember information easily which builds knowledge.  This is the reason why professors say cramming for exams is never a good strategy for learning because students will often forget the material shortly after completing the test.

Are you stressed?  If so, this is another reason to stop multitasking.   Research has found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline which can derail your health. Also, stress contributes to the loss of your short-term memory.  Sounds like a lose/lose situation to me.

I know what you’re thinking.  There is just not enough time in the day to do everything so multitasking makes sense!  While I understand that life will undoubtedly cause you to juggle several tasks at once from time to time, the idea is to allow that to be the exception and incorporate discipline and time management strategies on a continuous basis to optimize your productivity while reducing stress and anxiety.

Below I’ve listed some recommendations on how to shift from multitasking to singletasking. 

1.         Knowledge is Power –  Sometimes we multitask unconsciously.  Take a moment to determine when and how you multitask.  What are your multitasking habits?  Figure it out and write it down. Then create a new system describing creative ways that you can complete each task without multitasking.

2.         Create a to-do list and follow it – List the items that need to be done for the day.  Tackle your high priority projects first.  Having a list and only accomplishing half of it is still better than not having a list at all. The act of writing down your goals for the day is powerful because it allows you to set the intention in your mind, which is the biggest requirement for accomplishing goals.

3.         Resist the urge – Once you have established your goals work on each one until completed.  If you are a heavy multitasker you are probably addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes from doing a number of different things at once.  Once you get past your normal threshold of 2 to 15 minutes, or however long it takes you to focus on one project without getting bored or irritated, discipline yourself to persevere, resist the urge to distract yourself and keep going anyway for an extra 10 minutes or longer.  The longer you are able to concentrate past your peak of frustration the easier it will get.  When it gets difficult, stop what you are doing, take 5 deep breathes and allow yourself a few moments of silence, then continue with your project.

4.         Be Conscious of Now –  Try bringing to the current moment the full awareness of all of your senses.  Really observe the space and people around you. Hear what they are saying.  Smell it; feel it.   Try bringing 100% of your attention to whatever task you are focusing on.  For example: when you are spending quality time with your family or pets, put the Blackberry down. You can check your e-mails later.  

 5.        Manage Distractions – Multitaskers are less able to decipher an important vs. a trivial interruption.  Create a list of potential distractions such a call from your mom, an e-mail from your boss, or a coffee invitation from a co-worker.  Decide which types of interruptions will require your immediate attention and which ones can be put off for a later time.  For example, while working on your high-priority projects you may only want to be interrupted for important matters.  For your less priority projects, it’s ok to take a break and get coffee with your co-workers.

Just take it one day at a time and do your best.  Even if you just incorporate a few of these changes you may notice an improvement in your concentration levels and overall quality of life.  Remember, it takes at least 30 days to develop a new habit so try it out for at least a month and see if it works for you.

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Responses

  1. This article was AMAZING! It offers a message that should be taken very seriously. Unfortunately, the people who need this message the most are probably too busy multitasking to really understand the value of it’s content.

    Thank you for sharing Rachel.

    Janice Leek

    • Thank you for reading my post! I’m glad you found it to be helpful!!

      Always my best,
      Rachel Cates

  2. Hello Rachel! I am extremely impressed by your article. It is clearly defined and I immediately began to think about multitasking in a different way as I read the article, was trying to type on another window while reading this article and answering two phones when they rang. I have to laugh because – you’re right! When I came back to your article, it took my attention to another place and caused me to pause for about five minutes before I could re-absorb the meaning of the article where I left off! Wow..that was awesome – I will definitely take my 30 day exercise seriously and keep you informed of my progress! Thank you again Ms. Cates – you Rock!

    Jackie Simley-Stevens

    • Thanks for reading Jackie!!

      I’m glad you found the article to be helpful and way to go on observing your multitasking pattern. Awareness is the first step to recovery. 🙂

      I look forward to hearing about your progress. Just take it one day at a time and remember to celebrate your success!

      Always my best,
      Rachel

  3. I’ve always been a firm believer in single tasking, your article confirms this. “Something common done uncommonly well” is the best choice. God will bless you because you’re sharing your knowledge. You’re a wise young lady… Thanks !

    • Hi Ken,

      Thank you very much for reading my blog. I also appreciate your comment and quote.

      Best regards,
      Rachel


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