By Barb Ward from an interview with Kathleen Mineo, PHR

In today’s fast-paced world, you are expected to do more with less and always have a dozen things on your list that you must do to be an effective parent, leader, coworker, partner, teammate, and friend. You have phone calls to answer, emails to reply to, bills to pay, meetings to attend, and so on.  To be more productive, you must be able to do more than one thing at a time—you must be an expert at multitasking. Right? The answer is no. In reality, your brain is not wired to work that way. Neuroscience has proven that the human brain can only focus on one high-level function at a time.

People who think they are multitasking are actually just switching between multiple tasks at a very fast rate. It has been proven that doing so is not effective; in fact, trying to multitask makes it less likely that any of the activities attempted will be completed successfully.

For instance, have you ever tried reading a book and carrying on a conversation at the same time? Or tried writing an email and talking on the phone at the same time? These tasks all require the same part of the brain (language and word processing), and the brain cannot handle both requests simultaneously. When you multitask, you effectively reduce the amount of attention you are giving to each task to 50% or less.

What’s more, according to Stanford News1, a study by Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their belief about whether multitasking would improve their performance or not. They found that the group who believed multitasking would boost their performance were worse at successfully completing multiple tasks in the same time frame as those who preferred to do a single task at a time. The multitasking group had more difficulty logically organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information. They were also less adept at switching from one task to another.

Sand Running Through An Hourglass

Multitasking can also:

  • Impact short-term memory, which can make it difficult to manage tasks and focus on key information.
  • Lead to increased anxiety. Multitasking increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the flight-or fight hormone, adrenaline. These hormones can make you feel out of control, anxious and sick.
  • Inhibit creative thinking.
  • Cause more mistakes and lower productivity.

Maybe you’re still thinking, “Okay, but I am an exception, I am a woman and women naturally multitask better than men.” Or, “Yes, but I am young, my brain functions at a higher capacity.” Think again. Multitasking does not discriminate. Both women and men are equally bad at multitasking. And, even though younger people who have been raised on multiple devices and notifications are more likely to be multitaskers, these same youngsters are more likely to take longer to do their work and have a harder time remembering what they’ve learned.

The good news is that, by changing your behavior patterns, you can eliminate the detriments of multitasking and increase your productivity. The first thing you must do is take back control of your time.

Here are some things you can try:

  • Create a daily schedule and stick to it.
  • Block out sections of your day to complete specific tasks. Don’t let distractions interrupt that time.
  • Schedule specific blocks of time for reading and answering emails and phone calls. Be true to your time limits.
  • Turn off alerts on your phone and email when you are trying to focus.
  • Take brain breaks. Taking breaks allows you to relax and refocus your mind.
  • Clear clutter and distractions, both physical and digital, from your work space.

Portrait of black woman with dreadlocks hair

Using mindfulness techniques can also help refocus your mind and keep it focused. Pick one of the following to do throughout the week and see if it helps you relax, feel calmer and be more productive.

Mindful breathing minute

Breathe deeply and relax for one minute. You may keep your eyes open or close them, whichever relaxes you. Focus your attention on your breathing and relaxing your body. Clear your mind of all thoughts. This can be a powerful tool to calm you when start feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Be in the moment

Studies show that 47% of the time we are thinking of things other than the task we are completing in that moment. This means that, often, when we are having a conversation with another person, we are focusing on our own inner thoughts instead of what they are saying. Next time you are having a conversation, put conscious effort into giving your full, undivided attention to the person to whom you are speaking.

Mindful appreciation

Notice five things in your day that usually go unnoticed and appreciate them. Whether you choose objects, people, or even events, the point is to make you aware of all the things you have to be thankful for, from the seemingly insignificant to things that mean a great deal. For example, you may not give much thought to the electricity that keeps your home warm or cool, or makes your coffee in the morning, your clothes that provide warmth and comfort, or the person who delivers your mail. Taking time to identify these things helps you be grateful for the ways they support you in your life.

While these tips and techniques may not completely cure you of multitasking, they are small steps that can help you retrain the way you work and live your life. Over time, you will see the positive impact these changes have on the way you approach your life, and your work. 

1 Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows, Stanford Report, August 24, 2009