At no time in the history of the world has change taken place at a more rapid pace than now. It has been estimated that more change has taken place in the last decade than in the past 5000 years. We are busier than ever before. We are required to do more in less time and to produce more with less resources. We are the most distracted now than ever before. I watch in amazement as my kids try to study for an exam, listen to music, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram almost simultaneously. This couldn’t happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.
The ability to do more than one thing at the same time is seen as a desirable skill in the modern world. People that can multi-task are seen to be more productive. It’s a lie and if you want to achieve more at work and in your personal life, stick with me for the next few minutes.
In 2009, Dr Clifford Nass, a cognitive scientist at Stanford University, surveyed 262 students on their media consumption habits. He then took the 19 students that multitasked the most and the 22 students that multitasked least and did two computer based tests that were completed while only focusing on the task at hand.
First, they had to remember the briefly glimpsed orientations of red rectangles surrounded by different numbers of blue rectangles. In the second task, they were asked to categorize a random string of words, and then to do it again without categorizing words that were preceded by a beep.
In a third test, a different group of 30 high- and low-multitaskers were asked to identify target letters on a screen. As the test was repeated, they had to remember whether letters had also been targeted in earlier trials.
In every test, students who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best.
“These are all very standard tasks in psychology,” said Nass. “In the first, there’s lots of evidence that if people do poorly, they have trouble ignoring irrelevant information. For the second task, there are many demonstrations that this is a good reflection of people’s ability to organize things in their working memory. The third task shows how fast and readily people switch from doing one thing to another.”
In another recent study, Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that “multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”
His research demonstrates that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information.
Discussing his research on National Public Radio recently, Poldrack warned, “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”
Learn to focus
What happens in an airport traffic control tower is the best Illustration of leveraging our brains ability to focus on the single most important activity, whilst also being aware of other priorities.
At any one time there could be more than one hundred planes approaching, taking off, or taxiing around. Every single one of those planes is important, especially if you happen to be on one of them. But for the air traffic controller, there is only one that is massively important – the one that’s landing at this particular moment.
The controller is aware of all the other planes on the radar. She is absolutely keeping track of them, but right now, every bit of her focus, every bit of her talent and expertise is focused on landing that one single plane. Nothing else matters as much as getting that one plane landed on the ground safely.
If you are finding yourself torn between various activities and discovering that you’re not really doing the things which matter most, consider the following questions. What is the one single activity that you’ve perhaps been avoiding in your life, or neglecting in your life? What’s the one single activity that you know if you had to start doing it consistently and with excellence, would have the single greatest influence in your personal life? Now right another activity that would have the greatest single influence in your professional life. The failure to achieve this, would render anything else in your life insignificant.
Don’t try to do too much right now. Rewire your brain to create some new habits and then focus on other areas that would make a difference.
At the beginning of each week, ask yourself what the one single thing is that will have the greatest influence over your week, failure to achieve that will make all other activities irrelevant. Do the same thing on a daily basis and then do that thing first thing in the morning. Research shows that when our minds are most fresh, we have a better chance of doing the important things. The longer we leave it, the less chance we have of doing them.
Imagine the rays of the sun striking a newspaper lying on the sand of a tropical beach. Even if the newspaper were to remain there for many years, there wouldn’t be very much sun damage. True, the pages would yellow and fade, but for the most part, the newspaper would remain intact. Yet, if we were to use a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun, we could set the newspaper ablaze in minutes. Such is the power of focus. It is magical.
Like the sun, you have enormous potential power, but it will not bear fruit unless it is focused.