Sure, we can brush our teeth and watch TV at the same time. Cook and talk to our spouse. Make the bed and listen to music. Fold laundry and sing. But no matter how clever, adept or accomplished we may be, our brains just aren’t wired for multitasking.
Folding laundry, brushing our teeth and the like are all things we do by rote. Because we’ve done them thousands of times, we don’t need to be Einstein to complete them.
But doing two dissimilar activities that require more sophisticated brain power? That’s when we have a hard time.
Short-Term Memory Has Its Limits
Scientific research has shown that our short-term memory only stores between 5 and 9 items at a time. This limit means taking two separate simultaneous streams of information into short-term memory at the same time is impossible.
That’s why, for instance, you may not hear or remember what someone says to you while you’re actively working on your computer – and why talking and driving (even with a hands-free set) is so potentially deadly. Our brains simply can’t process all the input.
Of course, if you can’t retain information in short-term memory, it has no chance of making it to long-term memory. Later, when you’re trying to remember what your boss, spouse or child told you, you’re apt to draw a blank.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that many offices now insist that meetings be laptop-free. Managers found attendees weren’t retaining information due to digital distraction.
But there are other cognitive consequences, as well. In iDisorder, Dr. Larry Rosen cites one study of computer programmers who took an average of more than 25 minutes to get back on task after they “self-interrupted” their work. Although all were able to complete their work, those who self-interrupted most were often more stressed than those who focused on one task at a time.
Too much time online can even shrink your brain. One Chinese study reported on by Scientific American looked at brain scans of college-aged Internet fanatics and found that “several small regions in online addicts’ brains [had] shrunk, in some cases as much as a 10 to 20 percent.” (The full text of this fascinating study is available here.)
Other research cited by Rosen similarly found that
those who are online more than ten hours a day have less brain “gray matter” than those who are online less than two hours a day. What this suggests is that it is important to consider how much you are multitasking and structure your environment to limit those distracters.
Stop, Recognize, Access, Choose
Multitasking is here to stay. So how do we rein in distractions – even (perhaps especially) distractions we enjoy – so as to reduce stress and get the most out of our lives at work and home?
Cultivating awareness every moment is the key: Stop, recognize, access and choose.
These simple actions take seconds and give us the opportunity to consciously select where to focus our attention. Additionally, learning the art of prioritizing – which is a primary goal of life coaching – makes it easier to turn off distractions that don’t need immediate attention.
Meditation training can also help people working with information stay on tasks longer with fewer distractions, as shown by University of Washington Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock. It has also been shown to improve memory and reduce stress.
Best of all, overall levels of happiness and wellbeing are likely to improve. Why? As Will Schwalbe says in The End of Your Life Book Club,
Modern life itself is an interruption machine: phone calls, emails, texts, news, television, and our own restless minds. The greatest gift you can give anyone is your undivided attention.