Shifting Gears: What Multitasking Does To You

Draw a circle with your left hand and at the same time draw a straight line with your right hand. Were you able to do it?

Often we load our brains with so many tasks to perform and complete in such little time that we often multi-task our way into completing them. Have you ever wondered how our brain manages to multi-task and tick off all the things on our to do list? Here is how.

Multitasking is a person’s ability to do more than one thing at a time. It can mean performing two or more tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth from one thing to another. Multitasking can also involve performing a number of tasks in rapid succession. Though multitasking can be helpful in completing several tasks at one time, is it really helpful to do several things at one time and more importantly does it help us give 100% to the task at hand?

When a task demands attention, an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex gets into action. This region plays an important in planning, attention, decision-making, personality expression and moderating social attention. Multitasking splits the brain. Instead of allowing your brain to focus on one thing at a time you are forcing it to do two things at once. The prefrontal cortex speeds neuronal signals first to task one, then to task two, spending no more than few seconds on each. Because of this your brain goes on an overdrive, affecting the performance on the task at hand.

While it might seem like you are accomplishing many things at once, research has shown that our brains are not good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think we are. In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent! Why does multitasking make us feel like such a productivity killer? While you try to do many things at a time, you are quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down.

Experts suggest that the negative impact of chronic, heavy multitasking might be the most detrimental to adolescent minds. Teen brains are busy forming important neural connections. Constantly being distracted by different streams of information might have a serious, long-term, negative impact on how these connections form. Experts believe that teens who often engage in media multitasking the most heavily may be particularly vulnerable to any negative consequences of multitasking. Learning, memory and planning are also impacted.

On the other side, multitasking can get a lot easier when one of task is something that you have done a million time that it is almost automatic. For example, you can do other things while you are walking – talk to a friend, watch a tv show, talk over the phone. But if the situation is changed a little bit, it demand would demand complete attention.

There are several ways where people can just work smarter and more efficiently to avoid multi-tasking. Building “screen breaks” into your schedule, both at work and at home. The length should be a min of 1-3 hours at a time so you can engage in a deeper and different way on problems, studying, writing, thinking, talking, etc. Avoid email and screen exposure for the first and last hour of the day so that you wake up and engage in a deeper, more focused activity of some sort. If you schedule your day between meetings and action to-do’s, plan every day plus tomorrow and the next day, it makes it easier not to get distracted. It’s best to keep track of everything in a single system – from meetings to to-do’s, both personal and professional – which will help you focus and prioritize. If you plan what to do and review it the night before, you’re less likely to get sucked into mindless distractions. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to combat distractions. Knock out the big things and the toughest stuff early in the day so you have the rest of the day to catch up with the buzz, the urgency, the distractions and the little stuff. Take advantage of the morning to complete the tasks that require more energy and discipline.

Eventually, it’s all about training your brain!

Authorship: Urja Mehta

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