Multitasking used to be the name of the game. The more you could do at once, the more productive you were thought to be.
Every day, we juggle multiple devices along with multiple responsibilities. It’s ironic that with all of these productivity tools at our fingertips–laptops, tablets and smartphones–we’re less productive than ever.
The simple reason? Research has proved that multitasking doesn’t work. Why? Because when it comes to the brain’s ability to pay attention, it focuses on concepts sequentially, not on two things at once. The brain has to disengage from one activity in order to engage in another–and while it happens relatively quickly, in several tenths of a second, we’re not giving anything our full attention if we’re trying to do more than one thing at one time.
Of course we can, you might be saying. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. True. But neither of those activities involves the brain’s ability to pay attention. Attentional ability is not capable of multitasking.
Imagine you’re sitting at your desk after your boss has asked you to type up a report. You open the document, type a few words, then your email program beeps to notify you that a message has arrived in your inbox. Even if you only stop to look at the notification to see who the message is from, you’ve just asked your brain to shift from one type of activity to another. Then you shift back to the report. And your desk phone rings. Or your cell phone indicates that a text has come in. Or a co-worker stops by your desk to ask you a question. Each time you stop to pay attention to one of these interruptions, you’ve taken your focus off of your report. And each time you go back to it, you’ll find yourself losing track of your previous progress and needing to start over.
Why does this matter? Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task–and makes up to 50 percent more errors.
It’s no wonder, then, that leading companies like Google, Monsanto and Hearst Publications are teaching their employees about the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is really just another word for focus–and when you’ve learned how to focus your attention, you can improve your productivity, your memory and your ability to think creatively.
Some of the most famous practitioners of mindfulness are Buddhist monks. But you don’t need a class or years of practice in a monastery to attempt mindfulness.
First, try a couple of experiments:
- Next time you have to call a client, sit somewhere away from your desk and your computer and all of the accompanying distractions. Focus only on the conversation, listening intently to what the client is saying. This will help you make more genuine connections, build more trusted relationships and have a positive impact on your business.
- Next time you have a project to complete, literally block out the time for yourself–turn off your email, your IM program and your smartphone.
- Turn on the “do not disturb” function on your desk phone. Create an interruption-free zone for yourself, and see how much more you get done.
Of course it’s not possible to rid yourself of all distractions, all the time. So start practicing mindfulness by working on tasks for 20-minute intervals. You can gradually increase those intervals to two-hour spans. With practice, you’ll be able to accomplish much more and with less effort.
Instead of being a multitasker, try being a serial focuser. The simple act of focusing your attention on one task at a time will change your experience and improve your productivity.