How to Multitask Without Breaking Your Brain

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We live in the golden era of multitasking. Technology has made it possible to send emails on a walk, text your significant other at work, and play Civilization in class. You can have a conversation with someone while scrolling through Twitter. You can read an article while plugging data into a spreadsheet. In some work environments, Slack and Gchat aren’t just accepted forms of communication, but required, and it’s common for modern workers to spend their days juggling emails, assignments, and a constant stream of interoffice conversation all at once.

Unfortunately, multitasking isn’t a skill to hone so much as a pitfall to avoid. In fact, according to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, multitasking is taking a serious toll on our brain cells, with “heavy media multitaskers” — people who constantly switch between screens, tabs, and apps — eventually developing weaker memories.

“Fifty percent of people think they’re great multitaskers, but only 1 percent really are, so 49 percent of those people are deluding themselves.”

“Brain scans have shown that chronic multitasking thins your prefrontal cortex,” explains psychologist Joshua Ehrlich, an executive coach and chair of the Global Leadership Council, a consulting and executive coaching firm. “So, the very part of your brain that you need to focus — what in neuroscience is called the executive function, that zeroes in on something and does planning and deciding — gets fried. It’s neurotoxic.” It’s a finding that’s especially troubling for people whose jobs require them to be heavy media multitaskers — which, these days, is a lot of jobs. But while you probably won’t be able to avoid multitasking altogether, there are ways to do it that mitigate the harmful effects.

Remember That You’re Not as Good a Multitasker as You Think

First and foremost, while multitasking may screw with your brain in the long term, it also trips you up in the short term. “If you make someone do two things at the same time, there’s always some interference,” says Gordon Logan, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. “If you have to identify letters, and two letters appear at the same time, it’s harder to do that than if they appear one after the other.”

And while lots of people claim they’re very good multitaskers, in reality, experts say only about 1 percent of the population are something called “super multitaskers,” or people who can do many tasks simultaneously without the quality of work suffering.

“People’s estimates of their own multitasking abilities are almost always higher,” says Michael K. Gardner, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah. “Fifty percent of people think they’re great multitaskers, but only 1 percent really are, so 49 percent of people are deluding themselves.” The capacity to super-multitask is probably genetic, so no matter how well you think you’ve trained yourself to do a million things at once, the hard truth is that you just aren’t wired that way.

Force Yourself into Short Bursts of Focus

Staying on just one task at a time is easier said than done, especially since we’re so used to switching tabs that we’re essentially addicted to it. But if you train your brain to focus on one task for an extended period, you can eventually cut down on the itch to click away.

Gardner recommends spending at least 15 minutes on any given task before switching back. “I would try to do longer increments, because there is a switch cost when you’re switching that it requires you to reengage,” he says. “You don’t want to be doing it every minute, going back and forth. That’s way too often, but every 15 minutes might work. Every hour might be better.”

Turn Off Notifications

One of the reasons we multitask so much is that we keep getting distracted by the little pings begging for our attention. “I’m interrupt-driven, so I’ll be working on what I’m working on and an email pops up and I look at it,” Logan says. “Some of the difficulty of multitasking is just being interrupted.”

And realistically, most of those interruptions can probably wait. “Ask yourself: How many of these things are things that you must respond to [versus things] you’ve just been programmed into believing you must respond to?” Gardner says. “Every now and then, there’s something super important that you do need to respond to, so you are afraid to let it go. The flip side is that 90 percent of the time it isn’t that, yet you keep checking for notifications.”

Get rid of the temptation. Set Slack to notify you only if someone messages you directly, turn off your email notifications, and either silence your phone or set it so you aren’t notified if someone texts you. Make sure family and friends know they can call you in an emergency, but otherwise you don’t need to respond to them immediately.

Check Your Email Once an Hour

Even if your notifications are off, it’s important to limit self-interruptions, like checking email. Research has shown that the average person checks their email about 15 times a day — but unless you’re waiting for something important or timely, you can probably cut back on visits to your inbox. “I realize that people can’t just leave their email off for an entire day, but maybe leave it off for an hour or two, and then spend 10 to 15 minutes responding to the emails that you have to respond to,” Gardner says. “You can let your colleagues know, ‘If you need to reach me, I’ll get back to you, but there are periods when I have the screen off.’”

Even if it’s your boss emailing you, you don’t necessarily need to respond right away. “When I coach on this and teach programs on this, people will say, ‘Yeah, my boss expects me to be responding instantaneously,’” Erlich says. “But then when I talk to the bosses, they’re like, ‘No, actually I hired that person to think, and if constant checking is getting in the way with that, I don’t want that.’” Be sure to clear this with your employer, but if they’ve assigned you a certain task, they’re probably cool with you focusing on that instead of on them.

Cut Back on Your Open Tabs

When you have a bunch of tabs open at the same time, it’s easy to feel the itch to check things you probably don’t need to or mindlessly toggle between tasks. But if you minimize tabs you don’t need or close them altogether, you can trick your brain into forgetting about that tweet you just sent or the Gchat you just got.

For instance, when I’m working on a story, I keep the draft and any articles I’m using as reference in one window. Everything else — my email, Twitter, unfinished crossword puzzles — gets sent to the toolbar until I’m finished with the task at hand. You can also try keeping unnecessary programs in a separate screen so you can’t even see them in the toolbar.

Practice Mindfulness

According to Ehrlich, training your brain to turn off temporarily can help lessen multitasking’s deleterious effects. “Multitasking is neurotoxic to the prefrontal cortex. But when I practice mindfulness, when I practice focusing and being present and doing one thing at a time, that area thickens,” Ehrlich says. “It’s not immediate. It’s thousands of hours and a lot of practice. But chronic multitasking makes it harder to focus, and mindfulness increases focus.”

You can try meditation exercises, yoga, or focusing on breathing, but you could also just step away from your screen and take a walk around the block. “Every time we shift our attention back to the present, to what we want to be doing, that strengthens our willpower, the focusing part of our brain,” Ehrlich says. “Ask the question: What’s the most important thing to be doing right now? Am I multitasking? Is that really what I want to be doing? If we ask that most important prioritization question, then we will focus better.”

Rebecca Fishbein is a writer in Brooklyn & the author of GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU HATE, out 10/15. Find her on Twitter at @bfishbfish.

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