Is Multitasking Destroying Your Ability to Pay Attention?
Have you ever taken your phone with you when you went to the bathroom? Quickly glanced and responded to an email while on a conference call? Shoot off a quick text while having dinner with friends?
We have become multi-tasking ninjas, but are we really accomplishing anything? It turns out our brains are not very good at driving away distraction and technology has only aggravated it.
Here’s some science to help explain why our brains aren’t built for multitasking, and are in fact limited in their ability to pay attention.
Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, explain in their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World how we don’t really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks. Distractions and interruptions, often technology-related—referred to by the authors as “interference” — collide with our goal setting abilities.
For example, I want to finish writing this sentence, but I get a notification on my phone that I’ve received a text message, so I turn my attention away from the my thought and to my notification. That lures me into a rabbit hole of twenty minutes lost on checking my Fitbit progress for the day, doing a quick run-thru on social media and creating a note to save for later.
Now, what was I writing about? If you’re working on a project and stop to answer an email or text like I did, research shows, it will take you nearly a half-hour to get back on task.
Gazzaley explains when you engage in one task at a time, the prefrontal cortex works in harmony with other parts of the brain, but when you toss in another task it forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. It’s this process of splitting your attention that usually leads to mistakes or not your best work.
In other words, each time our eyes glance away from our computer monitor to sneak a peek at a text message, the brain takes in new information, which reduces our primary focus. We think the mind can juggle two or three activities successfully at once, but the authors think we woefully overestimate that ability.
So where does that leave us besides with half-completed tasks, near accidents, and disjointed conversations?
Here are some practical tips on how to fight distraction and use our devices in a more balanced way:
- Clear your workspace. Remove mobile devices and extraneous papers.
- Use one computer screen. Shut down all unnecessary programs and apps.
- Open one browser, and use only one tab.
- Turn off email notifications.
- Set expectations. Tell your boss you’re going to offline for a while. Or, set an auto response for texts and emails, explaining that you’ll be offline for a set period of time.
- Work in a quiet environment; otherwise use noise-cancelling headphones.
- Display a “no interruption zone” sign at your desk or on your office door.
- Check out helpful apps like SelfControl, Freedom or Focus