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Why You Shouldn’t Multitask

Can you read this article and hold a conversation at the same time?

Not adequately, no.

That’s called multitasking – the process of doing several things at once. Talking on the phone and driving. Checking email during meetings. Studying during commercial breaks.

We all do it. And science says we should stop.

Why do we multitask?

According to Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, “Many people have convinced themselves that it’s crucial that they are always connected, both professionally and socially, but the reality is that this requirement is self-imposed.”

What’s worse is that multitaskers can become overly attached to the immediate gratification of finishing up something small, like sending a text or writing an email. It convinces the brain that good progress is being made – and provides a nice dopamine rush – but the truth is, progress is coming at a totally sub-optimal rate.

Why is multitasking bad for us?

Humans were not designed to multitask. Research has shown that there is little benefit to the practice, and people would actually achieve more if they would focus on one task at a time. Why?

It seems sensible to work on two and three things simultaneously, switching back and forth between tasks, juggling progress for each one. But that doesn’t factor in the cognitive price that comes with switching between tasks. The act of switching can actually drain momentum and cost significant progress. According to research, the act of switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time.

Worse yet, a study at the University of London found that people who multitasked during cognitive-intensive sessions demonstrated declines in IQ in line with an individual who hadn’t slept the night before. The study observed that men, who lost upwards of 15 IQ points during multitasking sessions, demonstrated the cognitive abilities of 8-year-old children.

How can you break the multitasking habit?

There’s still hope! Follow the advice below and break free of your multitasker’s mindset.

  • Monotask your environment. Construct your working spaces in ways that reduce distraction and allow you to focus on one thing at a time. No alarms, no popups, no phones, no email, no interruptions.
  • Break free of technology in social situations. When you’re having a conversation or eating dinner, make sure your phone is out of sight (and preferably silent).
  • Hold device-free meetings. Announce that any meetings or study sessions will be totally device-free. Everyone should pile laptops and phones in a far corner of the room. If you have to use a presentation or digital document of some kind, host it on a single screen. You’ll get pushback initially, but the time you save can cut down on the total time investment required for each gathering.
  • Don’t daydream at the gym. Instead, focus on the workout. Emphasize your movements and be mindful of the exercise. You’ll get better, more thorough workouts in less time.
  • Eat lunch alone. Socializing with coworkers or classmates is great, unless it causes you to spend your free time chatting about the work you have left to accomplish. Sometimes giving yourself time away from both device and conversation can be just what you need to recharge and refocus.
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