We multi-task pretty much all the time. I walk while writing. I think while writing. I cook while thinking. I iron or run while planning a speech. I plan a shopping list while cleaning the bathroom. And, of course, we walk while looking, listen while looking, move our arms while moving our legs, talk while driving/eating/walking.
None of those things is usually a problem because in each pairing, one of the things occupies a small amount of attention, so we can devote full attention to the one we want or need to be fully engaged in.
But if I started thinking too deeply while cooking, I’d almost certainly forget to add something to the pan. If I was too deeply engaged on my mental speech while running, I’d forget to turn into my drive. If I listened to closely to the person talking to me while I’m driving, I’ll miss my turning.
So, yes, we are almost always doing more than one thing with our minds, even if one of the things is “sit still”, “look as though you’re listening to Nicola while she’s speaking”, “resist the temptation to scratch your nose while someone’s taking a photo”. And sometimes it’s fine.
But if we think we can do a high-concentration task – such as understanding new information, listening to a speech, reading something, working something out, learning, creating – while anything else is occupying more than a small amount of our brain bandwidth, we kid ourselves. (For the evidence for that and what I’m about to say, see the Life Online resource and scroll down to the heading “Screens: information overload” etc..
Multi-tasking is ineffective; it’s mentally exhausting; and we do not get better at it the more we practise. In fact, the evidence suggests that we get worse, because what we’re actually practising when we do that is being distracted. We are getting very good at being distracted.
Almost everything we do on a screen is exceptionally distracting. they contain in-built distractors: lights, icons, adverts, notifications, opportunities to do something else, opportunities to be social (which we are heavily programmed to be) and curious (ditto).
Most of us are guilty of trying to multi-task too much. We know it’s not working ad it doesn’t feel good.
So, the answer is simple: practise uni-tasking.
Whenever possible (and sometimes it isn’t), close all windows on your screen except the one you’re working on (or, better, work on paper for a change). Remove or close down every chance of distraction. Put your phone out of sight and switched off. Tell the people around you that you are not to be disturbed for 45 minutes (or however long you choose.) ONLY do this one core task. You can have familiar music on if you want to because it uses so little bandwidth.
All of us should do this, I suggest. All ages. See what you can switch off, how much bandwidth you can harness for the task you want to do so well.
Notice how you feel. And notice how well you get that task done.
I just wrote this post like that. I did have to be online because I had to get the links to insert into the article, but my phone isn’t in my office and all my social media screens are down. I wrote it really quickly and it felt great!
Oh, having said that, I did walk 2000 steps on my treadmill but that’s how I concentrate. For me, that’s like listening to music: it helps me filter out the other distractions. And it uses almost no brain bandwidth.
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