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Should you rethink multi-tasking

submitted by Lauren Schwabish, MS, CCC-SLP for Friends Life Care

Are you a proud multi-tasker? You may want to re-think that.

In a world saturated with incoming stimulation, it’s easy to assume we can handle multiple things at once. Yet, science reveals multi-tasking may not help with productivity at all.

Defining multi-tasking as “doing multiple things at once” is misleading. In reality, our brains quickly shift focus between tasks. So, if you’re reading this and listening to the radio, your brain is making fast, frequent decisions on where to put your attention, from reading to listening and back. Your eyes need to find the word you left off on the page, and your memory retrieves information you already consumed.

Researchers refer to this as “switching costs.” It may take tenths of a second, but speed and performance can deteriorate as a result.

Especially as we age, the skill to manage multiple tasks at a time may decline. Researchers at UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center revealed older brains had more difficulty with unexpected distractions, including forgetting information presented moments before.

Multi-tasking has been found to negatively impact other cognitive skills. For example, key “executive functions” of decision making, time management, and risk assessment. Multitaskers tend to over-estimate their capacity to accomplish certain tasks and can make impulsive choices. So, while we may think we’re being productive, multi-tasking causes us to poorly filter out irrelevant information and miss details.

Single tasking is an option that can help.  By removing distractions, time is spent on one activity at a time. It’s a better choice, especially for important tasks. Single tasking, paired with an occasional five-minute “brain break” (taking a pause in thinking to move around or take deep breaths) can boost results.

By creating more focus, you can make good use of one of our brain’s precious resources: attention.

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