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Multitasking is an Attention Thief

June 6, 2018

By Jocelyn Weiss, PhD, MPH

In today’s world, multitasking has become a given. We all do at least two (usually more) things at once multiple times a day, either because we are stressed, bored, or strapped for time. We talk on the phone while reading emails and taking notes at work. We text and surf social media while walking and driving. We often think that we are saving time and doing each task as effectively – but are we?

thief stealing a light bulb from a box labeled fresh ideas

In truth, our brains are not designed to multitask but rather to serial task. Our attention to multiple tasks does not work in parallel; it requires rapid switching of attention from one task to another.

Research has shown that people switch tasks during a typical workday an average of every 3 minutes; roughly half of these task switches are self-generated.1 What’s the cost of these interruptions? It can take an average of 23 minutes to get back to the original task, with significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure tacked on.

Outside of the workplace, we are further distracted by cell phones, social media, television, and other instant-access technology. This perpetual access to information takes us away from being in the moment, at a cost to our social skills, presence, empathy, relationships, and even (at times) our safety.

pic of boy yelling in megaphone while a man watching tv in front of him

So, how can we reduce multitasking and strengthen our ability to be more attentive? Here are a few tips:

Put Your Phone Away

There used to be a time when we only used telephones in our homes, at work, or in a booth. Now, in part because they serve many purposes, we stare at them while walking, at the dinner table, and driving in our cars. Keep your phone at more than arm’s length so that you are not constantly reaching for it when stressed or bored. Also, buy an alarm clock and leave the phone out of the bedroom. Late night perusing impacts our sleep through the blue light and checking email as soon as we wake up does not allow us to start our day at our own pace – leading to stress, multitasking, and reduced productivity.

Turn Off Notifications

The constant dinging and ringing of new messages, emails, and calls throughout our day provide ongoing interruptions. Rather than responding to each one, or even thinking about how you should respond, set aside dedicated time blocks for various tasks such as emailing and responding to calls.

Make Lists

Prioritize the necessities so that you are not overwhelmed with the laundry list of tasks you need to get done. You may find you do best at getting the smaller, easier tasks done first. Just make sure that these are not ways of distracting or procrastinating to avoid more challenging and important tasks. You cannot control all the daily external interruptions and demands, but you can control self-generated ones.

Learn to Say No

When realizing that you have too much on your plate, find ways to communicate this to your colleagues. At times, you might be able to say no to a task that can be delegated to someone else. When this is not possible, as is often the case with bosses, you might find ways to determine together which tasks take highest priority for completion.

Practice Mindfulness

Both formal and informal mindfulness practices help us to notice when we are stressed out, doing something because we are bored, or trying to multitask and do too many things at once. Formal mindfulness involves the intentional practice of staying in the present, usually at a designated time and place each day (such as meditation). Informal mindfulness involves paying attention as you do everyday activities, such as walking to your car, brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes. Both formal and informal mindfulness practices help to strengthen our ability to notice what is happening, what we are thinking, and how we are feeling in the moment. In noticing, we can then choose how to respond in ways that are supportive to us.

Interested in Learning How to Lead Others in Mind-Body Practices?

Join us for the upcoming Mastering the Mind-Body Toolkit (June 28-30, 2018) program at Duke Integrative Medicine. This three-day experiential course geared towards professionals is designed to be a practical, hands-on combination of information, skills practice, and guided discussion. Participants in the course will learn how to lead others in mind-body practices that help to cultivate mindfulness and support resiliency. The early registration deadline is June 1 to receive a 10% discount. Click here to register now!

 

References

  1. Mark G, Gudith D, and Klocke U. (2008) The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 107-110.
  2. Goleman D and Davidson RJ. Altered Traits.

 

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