Daniel Goleman: Are You Great At Multitasking? by Daniel Goleman

Probably not. CNN recently posted an interesting video of Dr. Sanjay Gupta explaining what happens to the brain while multitasking. Gupta argues that we’re not actually doing two tasks at once; we’re diverting our attention from one task to work on another, and giving each just partial attention.

He references a study done on multitasking while driving. It showed that listening to sentences while driving decreased the driver’s attention to operating the car by 37%. So rather than listening and driving simultaneously, you’re offering each activity your reduced attention, resulting in substandard performance.

Now think of how often this happens at work.

Does Our Attention Shrink?

Keep in mind that attention is a limited capacity. In the 1950s, cognitive psychologist George Miller suggested that our brains had a sweet spot for information processing—between five and nine bits of information at once. But more recently, cognitive scientists claim that four bits of information is the most our brains can process. This theory took hold—however briefly—and many perceived this capacity shrunk as a result of our modern, very distracted lives. But that’s not quite right.

“Working memory hasn’t shrunk,” said Justin Halberda, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s not the case that TV has made our working memory smaller. The mind tries to make the most of its limited resources,” Halberda explained. “So we use memory strategies that help.”

For instance, we learn to combine discrete elements, like numbers, into a single block. Instead of remembering the numbers 5 and 1 and 8 separately, we remember 518.

Which brings me back to Dr. Gupta’s point. While many assume we’re splitting our attention while multitasking, cognitive science tells us this is impossible. We do not have an expandable area of attention to offer simultaneously; instead, we have a limited amount to allot. We’re not partitioning our attention, we’re just moving it back and forth rapidly. And doing so really prohibits us from being fully absorbed.

In this way, multitasking is often thought of as the real root of inefficiency. When we’re interrupted working on a task, it often takes up to 15 minutes to resume full attention. Multiply that by how often you’re interrupted on a daily basis.

But mindfulness training can help you recover more quickly. When human resources professionals were trained in mindfulness, then faced with a series of interruptions during a typical frantic day, they found that their concentration improved dramatically. They were even able to stick with tasks longer and complete them more efficiently.

It’s just a matter of learning how to cope. So when you find yourself bombarded with distractions, try these tips:

  1. Identify your weaknesses. A lot of the interruptions we face arrive digitally, as social media pings, emails, texts, and the like. Try an app that blocks these temptations.
  2. Take note of how you get distracted. When you notice where your mind has gone—rearranging your bookshelf instead of writing a proposal—acknowledge what’s happening. “My mind is wandering from what I need to get done.” Just doing this disentangles you from the distraction and re-engages your brain with the more pressing task on your radar.
  3. Practice daily mindfulness. Try this simple exercise: Watch your breath, note when your mind has wandered, and come back to your breath. Consider this to be your mental workout, just like lifting weights. Each curl makes you a little stronger. When you practice mindfulness, the brain’s ability to notice when your mind has wandered, let go, and then return gets much stronger.

My colleague Elad Levinson, head lecturer in the forthcoming Praxis You online course, also has some useful ideas.

  1. Be very conscious about bringing all of your energy together in one place at one time. Now give all of your attention to one chosen task. Move sequentially and deliberately through the steps required to complete this task.
  1. “Sit and stay.” This skill helps you avoid multitasking. And it’s similar to any training where concentration is required, like training a child to sit and stay with her homework, even when it’s difficult. So next time you’re having a conversation, give that person your full engagement. Don’t check your phone, don’t let your mind wander. Just listen.
  1. Exert control over your attention. This requires you to lift your attention from where it lies, then place it elsewhere consciously and intentionally. Put this into practice. In the next workweek, break up your day into 45 minute time periods. Work with concentration in these 45-minute blocks. After each one, take a five-minute break to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Try to relax the muscles around your eyes, shoulders, jaw and neck.

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Additional Resources

The Leader’s Mind

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence

Working with Mindfulness: Research and Practice of Mindful Techniques in Organizations

Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving

Daniel Goleman: Are You Great At Multitasking?