As small business owners we face many demands on our time every day. Struggling to increase efficiency, we often resort to a practice called “multitasking”. This term means doing two things at once. Today, we often hear about highly successful people who are great multitaskers. Here is the blunt truth. It is physically impossible for your brain to do two things at once. In fact, recent research shows the effort to do so may cause brain damage.
Just what is Multitasking?
It turns out the term “multitasking” came from computer engineers. When the first computer microprocessors came along, they had a single core. That core could only do one thing at a time. Just like our brains. If asked to do more than one thing, the single core had to rotate tasks, which it could do at high speeds. Then came multi-core processors. If a microprocessor had two (or more) cores, each could still only process one thing, but they could do it at the same time. Hence the term “multitasking” was born.
Doesn’t my brain have more than one part?
Yes it does. And, it turns out there is one exception to my statement above that your brain can’t do two things at once. That exception is you can do two things at once as long as you engage different parts of the brain at the same time. The best example of this is reading while you are listening to instrumental music. The parts of the brain that process speech and instrumental music are different. Listen to music with lyrics, and your reading comprehension takes a nose dive. Why? Your brain can’t process two sources of speech at the same time.
So I can Multitask!
No. When you work on something, such as reading email, you are engaging in what psychologists call a cognitive function. This means the pre-frontal cortex of your brain focuses on doing one thing. Just like the single core processor, that’s all your pre-frontal cortex can do. When you try to multitask, what actually happens is your brain is “task switching”. Turning off one task and turning on another.
But I can switch tasks really fast!
You just think you can. A 2009 study at Stanford University (http://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/) showed multitasking decreases attention span, and memory control. And… the higher the number of tasks those subjects tried to juggle the worse they got.
What happens when you task switch is your productivity decreases. How much? The generally accepted number is up to 40%. So it actually takes you longer to complete a single task.
Even worse, a University of Sussex study (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/uos-bsr092314.php) showed multitaskers suffered from a loss of grey matter in certain areas of the brain. In short…brain damage.
Other studies have shown multitasking leads to increased stress, loss of sleep, increased impulsivity, and decreased ability to pay attention. In addition, your inability to focus on a single task makes it more likely you’ll make a mistake.
So, how am I supposed to get all this stuff done?
There is a simple answer. Slow down.
No kidding. If you just slow down, and work on one thing at a time you’ll get it done better and faster. Now when I say work on one thing, I mean to the exclusion of every thing else. Turn off your cell phone, or at least put it on vibrate and hide it in a drawer. Shut down your email. Close your internet browser. Turn off your iPad. Now finish one single task.
The surprising thing is by doing this, you will actually wind up getting more done in a day and with better results.
Here are some other tips
1. Do your best to plan your day in batches. Block out time (s) to answer email, then close it down. Put your phone on do not disturb, then answer all calls around the same time each day. Only allow yourself to surf the net at a certain time each day unless it involves research for a project. You get the idea. It won’t always work, but a little planning goes a long way.
2. Get enough sleep. Go to bed at the same time each night. Reading for pleasure at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep relaxes your mind. Now you’ll get to sleep easier and quicker. Get up at the same time each morning.
3. Meditate. This does not involve hours spent contemplating your navel. Even 15 or 20 minutes, done at the same time every day, sharpens your ability to focus. It also improves learning ability and memory.
The ability to multitask is in fact a myth. Further, multitasking is an addictive habit that is bad for your mental and physical health. If you are a multitasker, I encourage you to stop now. I did. And…I can tell you I think more clearly, feel better, and get more done in a day than I ever did when I multitasked.