Sitting down to complete any task (like writing an article, for example) is like an exercise in Zen-like focus. Constantly faced with an onslaught of pings, notifications and pop-up windows of all the other things that need to be done, it can seem impossible to complete anything from start to finish with zero distractions.
Juggling a complex to-do list may be seen as a badge of honour in efficiency, but in truth, multitasking makes you less productive and more likely to do a poor job.
“There’s this illusion that multitasking works. We believe it will allow us to save time,” says Dr Jenny Brockis, a brain health advocate and author of Future Brain. “We like to see those little ticks and crosses going through our to-do list. We feel better about how much we’ve done. Unfortunately, the more we fragment our focus by trying to do too many things simultaneously, we actually reduce our mental performance.”
We can fragment our attention, and have our radar picking up all sorts of things in our environment at any one time, but when we apply our focus; our brains actually can’t do it.
Enter monotasking, the antidote to multitasking. It works just as its name suggests: do one job at a time. “Do it well and get more done,” says Dr Brockis.
Currently, our brains are overloaded. “We’ve got too much on our plate and we’re trying to get through it as fast as possible so we don’t get overwhelmed.” The problem is, Dr Brockis explains, is that our brain isn’t designed to focus on more than one thing at a time. "We can fragment our attention, and have our radar picking up all sorts of things in our environment at any one time, but when we apply our focus; our brains actually can’t do it.”
Fragmenting focus is what causes stress on the brain, and that can have an effect on your memory. “Certainly in the short-term, the more we multitask, the more we impair our memory,” Dr Brockis says. “Studies have shown that people who are chronic multi-taskers actually reduce their capacity to be able to focus on one thing at a time.”
Studies have shown that people who are chronic multi-taskers actually reduce their capacity to be able to focus on one thing at a time.
Here’s the good news: it’s possible to reverse the damage done by our constant checking of emails and Facebook. “We’ve got this wonderful plastic brain we can re-train to behave differently, if we change our habits and become more of a monotasker, I would imagine that then we would regain that [brain] capacity,” says Dr Brockis.
Dr Brockis is the first to admit that monotasking is hard. (While writing this article, I have answered four emails, and checked Facebook twice.) “You have to make a conscious choice first,” she says. “It’s making that decision and then saying, ok, let’s start. It’s a new way of thinking, so like anything – such as losing weight or a new exercise program – it takes time and effort. It’s not about abandoning ship if you think you’ve tried it and it’s not working. It’s about going back and trying again because the more we practise, the better we get.”
Three steps to mastering monotasking
1. Write a priority list of what needs to be done. “Take the top three and disregard the rest. Of the top three, choose the one item that has to be done and give it priority above the rest.”
2. Work out the environment that works best for you. “Switch off your phone, have your devices closed, depending on what you’re doing.”
3. Treat it like a game of Monopoly. “You don’t pass go, don’t collect your $200 until you’ve completed that task," Dr Brockis suggests. "Once you’ve crossed that task off your list, you’ll have that little surge of dopamine that causes your brain to be rewarded. And that’s what motivates you to repeat that type of behavior and move on to the next item on your list.”
Image from Ryan Ritchie/Flickr.