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Mulling over multitasking

Psychologists share how to shine at work by getting more done – one task at a time.

By Doug McPherson

May 28, 2019

Lisa Badanes giving a class lecture.Here’s a fun tidbit: Multitasking wasn’t meant for humans. IBM coined the term “multitask” in 1965 to describe the capability of a new machine. But sometime after that, humans got the idea they could do more than one task at a time.

And our growing to-do lists and demanding, competitive work environments didn’t help. Now, multitasking is so common that job descriptions are peppered with it, and employers ask for it by name. There’s just one problem.

“It’s impossible for a human to do two tasks simultaneously,” said Lisa Hagan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

What’s worse, trying to multitask is harmful. Hagan explained that when we switch our attention back and forth between tasks, we not only waste time but also burn precious brain fuel.

And all those distractions of the modern workplace are equally disturbing. Lisa Badanes, Ph.D., professor of psychology, says a distraction unrelated to a task can reduce memory consolidation, engagement and achievement.

Perhaps more troubling and laden with irony is news that smartphones, a favorite source of distraction for many of us, can also make us less smart. The Journal of the Association of Consumer Research found that even when our phones aren’t nearby, they still reduce our “available cognitive capacity” because we’re thinking about them. With phones, out of sight isn’t out of mind. Scientists add that the more dependent we are on our phones, the worse the brain drain.  

What’s a well-meaning worker to do?  

Badanes suggests scheduling time for each to-do item. “Maybe an hour for writing, a half-hour for emails, an hour for lecture prep, etc.,” she said.

Badanes and Hagan say that before you begin your task, eliminate distractions. Turn off all notifications on your phone, computer or iPad; close your door; do everything you can think of to prevent interruptions and mitigate distractions.

Then, when you start your task, Hagan recommends working for 30 minutes or until your focus dulls.

Afterward, take a break to reward and recharge yourself. Hagan says she often uses her phone as a reward after she finishes a task. 

Badanes endorses walking, checking Facebook or sipping tea. “The breaks recharge your energy and cognitive acuity,” she says. “Plus, they give you a sense of autonomy and control over your workday.”

Hagan says breaks can be five to 10 minutes, but power naps could be even more effective. “Some research suggests short naps – 20 minutes – can aid focus,” Hagan said.

Then, to improve your overall mental sharpness for work, embrace movement.

“Research suggests physical movement can increase activity in the attention center of the brain,” Hagan added.

Badanes recommends building movement into your day by biking to work or getting off the light rail a stop early and finishing your commute with a walk. She adds that novelty can further boost cognition.

“Routinized cognitive tasks like calling people over and over again with a preset script or calculating budgets for hours on end depletes acuity,” Badanes said. “Change it up. Switch to a different activity when you start to feel dulled cognitively. Flex that brain muscle.”

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