As a small business owner, I spend a great deal of my time in front of groups of people, delivering workshops, facilitating planning sessions, convening and leading large group engagement events, and consulting on critical client business issues.
Until about 10 years ago, I believed that my ability to multitask was one of the things that set me apart. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was wrong. Not only that, but I found I wasn’t doing myself any favors by trying to develop multitasking skills.
Here is what I have discovered about multitasking:
It is impossible.
The brain can switch between tasks at such a speed that it seems like multitasking. But according to Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, even when we think we’re multitasking we can really only focus on one thing at a time.
It diminishes quality.
Clifford Nass, professor and researcher at Stanford University and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, told an interviewer on NPR’s “Science Friday” that “the research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
It harms the ability to focus.
According to Nass, people who regularly multitask have trouble focusing on just about anything, though they don’t realize it. “People who multitask can’t filter out irrelevancy,” Nass told NPR. “They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”
How you can retrain your brain and get focused
I knew that if I were to continue thinking I could to it all, my multitasking habit would harm my work and, in turn, my clients. So, I had to do something to retrain my brain and gain focus.
If you’re looking to break your multi-tasking habit and work smarter, try mediation. It doesn’t require long periods of time sitting in a cross-legged position, and it can be very useful in helping improve concentration.
Many people develop the habit by starting with three to five minutes a day. Through continual practice, you can lengthen the periods of concentration and reduce the frequency of distractions.
Any time you feel distracted, or are trying to do too many things at once, take a short breather and clear your head. Close your eyes and focus on a word or sound, not allowing your mind to stray. After you’ve cleared your head, you’ll be able to get back to work with a new sense of clarity.
Among the benefits I have enjoyed from letting go of my multitasking mindset:
- I can focus on quality in the moment, which typically leads to a better end result.
- When distractions occur, I can recover quickly by recognizing the distraction, consciously letting it go, and refocusing on the people or situation at hand.
- I can focus on one thing at a time, which simplifies and clarifies the moment and which, in turn, creates calm and sanity.
When I stopped trying to multitask, the quality of my work—and my life—improved. I was able to get plenty of things done, but do so without the chaos I dealt with before. What would you have to let go of, and what would you gain, if you stopped trying to multitask?
Jamie Showkeir is co-founder and owner of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., an organizational development consulting business with an extensive and varied client list. He is co-author (with Maren Showkeir) of two books, Authentic Conversations: Moving from manipulation to truth and commitment (Berrett-Kohler, 2008) and Yoga Wisdom at Work: Finding Sanity Off the Mat and On the Job (2013).