In today’s always-on world, multi-tasking is the norm. When you’re doing a lot of things at the same time, it can feel like you’re accomplishing more. It’s common to feel guilty and unproductive when you are only doing one thing at a time.
However, neuroscience tells us that it is actually impossible to pay attention to two things at once. When we think we are doing two things simultaneously (like watching TV and answering email), we are actually “task-switching”—switching back and forth rapidly between two or more tasks.
Research shows that multi-tasking can reduce your productivity by up to 40%. Researchers like Clifford Nass at Stanford University have found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.
Are you still not convinced that multi-tasking slows you down? Try this test:
- Time yourself writing out the word “Mastermind” spliced with the numbers 1-10, i.e., M1A2…
- Time yourself writing “Mastermind” followed by the numbers 1-10.
Most likely, your time to complete task #1 (multi-tasking) was longer than your time to complete task #2 (sequential tasks). Research confirms that there are three common consequences of multi-tasking:
- Tasks takes longer
- Mistakes increase
- Stress levels increase
What’s more, when we multitask all day, those scattered habits literally change the pathways in our brains. The consequence, according to Nass’s research, is that sustaining your attention becomes impossible.
To improve your brain health and boost productivity, try out these mindfulness-based tips to enhance your ability to single-task.
- Meditate: Mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to boost your attention span. To improve focus and working memory, practice primary focus meditations by anchoring on the breath, sensations in the body, or input from the five sense organs. Here is an example: a Body Scan practice by Mastermind and me.
- Do One Thing at a Time: As one of my dear friends Beth Reese says, “Go slow to go fast.” Practice single-tasking during your work day and home life. Set aside periods of time for undistracted work, without any electronic notifications and other distractions. You can also practice informal mindfulness techniques like mindful eating or mindful communication. When you do one thing at a time, you are building your focus muscle and retraining your brain to single-task.
- Restore: Rebuild depleted energy levels by losing yourself in activities you enjoy. Ideas include playing board games, spending time with loved ones, or cooking a meal.
- Refresh: Attention Restoration Theory tells us that time in nature is uniquely suited to restoring your attention span. Get outside and enjoy the outdoors to help rejuvenate your brain. Refreshing in this way will prime your focus muscle for more productive single-tasking time.
Are a heavy multi-tasker? You’re not alone. The good news is you now have awareness of your habits and the opportunity to change them. Join me at an upcoming science-based mindfulness workshop to further train your brain for productivity and health.
As Chief Mindfulness Officer of Mastermind Meditation, Dorsey Standish brings research-backed mindfulness and mindful movement to clients throughout the state of Texas. A lifelong learner and scientist, Dorsey has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and is enrolled in the UT Dallas Applied Cognition and Neuroscience Master’s Program. After mindfulness transformed her own work, health and relationships, Dorsey left her corporate role at Texas Instruments to share the power of mindfulness with others full-time. Dorsey’s teachings combine neuroscience research with her experiences in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program and multiple weekend and 10-day silent meditation retreats. Join Dorsey for one of Mastermind’s upcoming applied mindfulness programs at mastermindmeditate.com/programs.