The truth behind multitasking

By Marianne Renner: Leadership Coach, Speaker, Author

We live in a world where we all have more things to do than we can fathom. Whether you’re working for a company, own a business or are in charge of running a household – I don’t think there are any exceptions.

Every day I hear people talk about multitasking and how important it is to be a good multitasker.

So here’s the skinny on multitasking. In actuality, there really is no such thing. Multitasking implies that you are conducting more than one activity simultaneously. But what’s really occurring is that your brain is quickly shifting from one thought to another.

This can occur in less than a second, so it feels simultaneous. “So what,” you ask? “As long as I’m getting things done, what’s the problem?”

Brain deterioration.

Well, for one, rapidly switching thoughts back and forth can deteriorate the muscles in the brain that allow you to focus. This is according to Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Think about how lack of muscle use in the body causes atrophy and weakness. The same thing happens in your brain. When you do not spend time in long periods of concentration, your ability weakens.

A study at the University of London has shown that people who multitasked experienced decreased IQ. So even if you feel like you’re getting more done, you’re potentially suffering from loss of brain functionality and producing a much lower quality of work.

That means if you’re trying to stand out above the rest as a high performer in the competitive workplace or business environment, you’re more likely to be at a disadvantage if you’re constantly multitasking. If you want to really impress the boss, you’re going to want to focus on producing a high quality of work, which means having the ability to focus and concentrate.

Newport suggests that focusing on projects for extended periods of time without distraction is the skill of the 21st century that will provide a key competitive advantage in the workplace.

So what can you do about it?

I realize this is easier said than done in today’s fast-paced environment with cell phones, emails and instant messages firing off like crazy. Moreover, you feel like many demands are out of your control: meetings are scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled in a moment’s notice.

But there are things you can do to begin practicing what Newport refers to as “deep work.”

Unplug and concentrate. Practice concentrating on one task or project for an extended period of time without disruption. This will require turning off your email and phone for a pre-determined period of time. Concentration is a skill that requires practice, practice and more practice. The more you do it, the better you become.

Meditate. Block a pre-determined period of time to focus on, well, nothing. Focusing on deep-breathing will help stop your mind from jumping from thought to thought. You may be surprised to discover how challenging this is. In the beginning, you may only go for seconds at a time without all kinds of thoughts pushing their way in.

Start small. The best way to achieve success in anything is to create daily habits. Start with 10 minutes a day meditating and gradually increase your time. Do the same with concentrating on one task. Start with a small block of time, and gradually work your way up.

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