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The Myth of Multi-Tasking

There’s a video making the Internet rounds of a public bus ramming into the back of an SUV stopped in rush hour traffic. It’s filmed from the point of view of the bus driver – well, if the driver had been watching the road instead of texting on his phone, as revealed by the surveillance camera installed inside the bus.

No question, it’s difficult to resist the siren call of multi-tasking: “Do three things at once, get three times as much done!” But this “logic” ignores how the human mind actually functions, which is to focus on concepts sequentially, one at a time. The brain cannot, in fact, do more than one thing without drastically reducing the quality of its processing, i.e. slowing down.

Have you ever been in a phone conversation with someone when their voice trails off while they’re speaking, and they say, “Oh, sorry, just reading an email…”? That’s because brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment by 10 points. That, points out Josh Waitzkin, a chess and martial arts world champion and author of The Art of Learning, is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

Another thing: you’re not really performing multiple tasks at the same time, you’re just alternating between them. There are “switching costs” involved, says John Medina, a molecular biologist who specializes in brain development. That is, you make three times more errors on a project when interrupted and it takes you four times longer to complete a task when interrupted (so much for getting more done).

So are you ready to give up your so-called multi-tasking? Here are some habits for relearning how to focus your attention on one thing at a time.

  1. Turn it off. Is your technology a helpful tool or a Pavlovian dictator? All the alerts, ringing, buzzing, xylophoning and vibrating encourage reactive behavior, disrupting our concentration whether warranted or not. Consciously evaluate how you use technology and how you can program it to achieve focus, not distraction: shut off your phone for certain hours of the day, ignore call-waiting (yes, it’s possible!), and turn off email and text alerts.
  2. Segment your day. Looking at the day ahead, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what seemingly has to get done, which often leads to Headless Chicken Syndrome and things like trying to apply moisturizer and tie your shoes at the same time. Instead of haphazardly doing several things at once, start the conscious (there’s that word again) habit of breaking up your day into bite-size segments. Before you answer the phone, get dressed or head into a staff meeting, galvanize your attention to the task at hand by deliberately saying to yourself: “Now I am going to….” (If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a room wondering what you came in there for, this technique will help.)
  3. Create laser focus. To get more done, set an ambitious time limit for each segment (I see how many kitchen tasks I can accomplish in the two minutes the microwave popcorn is popping). See if unleashing the full power of your focus on one thing at a time doesn’t translate into more speed and efficiency than diffused attention to several things does.
  4. Consciously choreograph. If the very nature of your work requires continuous switching between several activities – you’re a receptionist in a medical office, for example, and you need to toggle between phones, requests from doctors and patients, and paperwork – the key is to approach it as one big task. Instead of merely reacting to external interruptions, find a logical stopping point before shifting your attention. Ask people to wait until you’ve sent your email, letting them know that it’s so you can give them your undivided attention. Likewise, pair physical with mental: tidy up the kitchen while listening to an audiobook, do your stretching exercises while watching a movie.
  5. Rest and recharge. You don’t expect your cell phone battery to stay juiced without recharging. The same goes for your ability to concentrate, which will fluctuate according to your energy levels. Jim Loehr, sports psychologist and co-author of The Power of Full Engagement, says the best way to maximize energy is to “sprint” through the day. Rather than working non-stop, marathon-style, adopt the habit of taking a 15 – 30 minute break every hour and a half or two hours; taking a stroll or stretching and deep breathing if you’ve been sitting in front of the computer will strengthen your powers of concentration and ability to resist the siren call of distraction.

The most satisfying and fulfilling experiences come when we are deeply engaged in what we are doing. And yet we continue to move reactively from one activity to anotherComputer Technology Articles, keeping our attention skittering across the surface. Our focus – where we direct it and how long we keep it there -- is one of the few things under our control. Isn’t it time we stopped relinquishing it?

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Peak performance strategist Renita T. Kalhorn is a Juilliard-trained classical pianist with an MBA from INSEAD and a first-degree martial-arts black belt. Leveraging the power of “flow,” she helps entrepreneurs and corporate professionals to achieve extreme focus and reach the top of their game at work. Learn More about Renita at

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