Multitasking: The Good, The Bad, & What You Can Do About It

Most of the modern world’s daily activities seem to revolve around multitasking. We order a coffee while checking Facebook, study some slideshows while watching Netflix, see what the top trends are on Twitter when we’re supposed to be talking with the friend sitting right in front of us… but is this all without a cost, not only to our phone battery, but to our brains?

According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, human brains are just not made for multitasking. As a general rule, people cannot truly multitask, but merely switch between tasks rapidly, and although women are better multitaskers than men, it still takes a toll. Even college students, who are generally thought of as expert multitaskers — after all, we juggle massive course loads, often work at least part-time, keep up with friends, and more — can have a rough time. A 2009 study of 262 college students found that chronic multitaskers were not only worse at multitasking, but worse at doing a single activity at a time. All of this together shows that, while listening to the radio while driving is one thing, constantly expecting ourselves to perform multiple tasks at the same time is not doing our productivity or ourselves any favors.

Now, this is not to say that there are not exceptions. There is a small minority of the population that is able to actually multitask without losing their ability to perform well. In fact, there have been studies done using functional neuroimaging to see what happens in the brains of people when they multitask, and about 2.5% of the sample were able to actually juggle more than one task without any measurable loss in performance. If you think you might be one, sorry to break this to you, but you’re almost certainly not. It took 25 years of research to discover the first one, and with those odds, I doubt you and all your classmates are actually supertaskers, regardless of how much you think you can study at the same time as Netflixing.

As a general rule, however, we are most efficient when we are able to focus wholeheartedly on a single task until we accomplish it. This is one of the reasons that time blocking is such an effective way to get things done. This allows us to give everything we do our best effort, and is the best way I have found to survive eternally busy schedules. It’s how I manage this, and LeaderBuild, and full-time school, and planning a wedding, and all the other beautiful insanity that is my life right now.

So, next time you feel inclined to just have a little TV in the background while you review notecards — don’t. When you feel like you want to start cleaning the entire house in bits and pieces — don’t. Find your goals, your values, the key things you want to accomplish, and set aside chunks of time to achieve them in. You will feel less ragged, you will accomplish more, and believe it or not, there will be more time to rest. Schedule around your priorities, take it one item and one day at a time, and never lose your ability to focus on what matters to you.

What do you do to really zone in on what you’re doing? Favorite seat, snack, scent, pre-focus routine? I want to hear all about it!

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