The power of sin­gle-task­ing

Re­search re­veals that mul­ti­task­ing can tem­po­rar­ily de­crease IQ by an av­er­age of 10 points – equiv­a­lent to miss­ing a whole night’s sleep

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What are you do­ing while you read this? Are you dip­ping into your email while tex­ting, read­ing tweets and partly lis­ten­ing at a meet­ing? Do you have your mo­bile phone, a desk phone, a tablet and a lap­top all on the go at once? Prob­a­bly. We all tend to do it, some more of­ten than oth­ers. Af­ter all, mul­ti­task­ing is the sign of a highly ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient mind – right? Wrong. It’s time for a re­minder about the power of sin­gle-task­ing.

It’s not you; it’s your brain

Do­ing sev­eral things at once makes you feel busy, but your body and mind sim­ply aren’t de­signed to work that way. Switch­ing be­tween tasks ac­tu­ally re­duces your pro­fi­ciency and ef­fi­ciency.

This could be due to how blood flows through our brains. Nerve fi­bres store lit­tle en­ergy, so when we think, prob­lem­solve or cre­ate mem­o­ries, our grey mat­ter de­mands a steady sup­ply of oxy­gen, glu­cose and nu­tri­ents.

Here’s the prob­lem: If you si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­ti­vate sev­eral parts of your brain, it’s smart enough to dis­trib­ute in­com­ing blood to those dif­fer­ent ar­eas. This re­duces the vol­ume and qual­ity of the fuel you can devote to any men­tal task. Imag­ine a fire­fighter try­ing to put out three house fires at once by spray­ing a hose back and forth over them all. There’s never enough wa­ter in one place to ex­tin­guish the blaze.

Mul­ti­task­ing can tem­po­rar­ily lower your IQ

Some of the ear­li­est re­search in the field comes from the UK. One of the most cited is a 2005 study con­ducted by Dr Glenn Wil­son, then a psy­chi­a­trist at King’s Col­lege, Lon­don. Wil­son found that work­ers who are dis­tracted by phone calls, emails and text mes­sages suffer a greater loss of IQ than a per­son smok­ing mar­i­juana.

His ap­proach in­cluded 80 clin­i­cal tri­als, each time mon­i­tor­ing work­ers’ IQ through­out the day.

Wil­son’s work re­vealed that mul­ti­task­ing could tem­po­rar­ily de­crease IQ by an av­er­age of 10 points (15 for men and five for women).

The so­lu­tion is to sim­plify our work pe­ri­ods. Re­mem­ber: Blood flow to the brain can’t de­liver op­ti­mum sup­ply to all parts of the brain at once. We can ac­ti­vate only tar­geted, smaller parts of the brain at any given mo­ment.

De­cide what’s most im­por­tant

Pro­tect time dur­ing each work­ing day so you can min­imise dis­trac­tions and per­form to your full po­ten­tial. Sin­gle-task­ing de­mands that we start with the most im­por­tant task.

To ac­com­plish more, we must un­der­stand that “im­por­tant” and “ur­gent” are not the same. Se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­i­ties might not call for your at­ten­tion in the form of an email alert or ringing phone, but they re­quire your con­cen­trated fo­cus just the same.

Once you’ve deter­mined which item on your to-do list is most im­por­tant, work on it ex­clu­sively un­til it’s com­pleted or you come up against the dead­line. Then, move on to what­ever’s next.

Of course, this means manag­ing your time and con­trol­ling when you’ll re­spond to emails or re­turn voice mes­sages.

I rec­om­mend avoid­ing email first thing in the morn­ing so you don’t get de­railed by some­thing that’s ur­gent but not im­por­tant. Set aside spe­cific times of day – two or three blocks – when you’ll do noth­ing but re­spond to these en­quiries.

Get started to­day

Try ded­i­cat­ing one 60- to 90-minute block of time each day to the high­est-pri­or­ity tasks. Dis­ci­pline yourself to work in a dis­trac­tion-free man­ner for the full pe­riod.

Re­sist the urge to fire back a text mes­sage. Keep in mind that habits can be hard to break; you might not re­alise you’re in a rut.

Grad­u­ally build more sin­gle-task­ing ses­sions into your daily sched­ule. You’ll feel more fo­cused and pro­duc­tive as you im­prove your per­for­mance – and your men­tal health.

Small, in­cre­men­tal changes can lead to im­prove­ments you didn’t think pos­si­ble.

Give the sci­ence a chance. Work on be­com­ing a sin­gle­tasker so both your brain and your busi­ness stay sharp.

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