Our nervous systems are constantly filtering the sensory overload that is a reality of life today. Emails and texts ping day and night, and we are rarely without a screen in front of us. We scroll through the whirlwind of posts and ads on social media. Distractions can seem like they are coming from everywhere, and that everyone is constantly trying to juggle multiple things at once. Multi-tasking has simply become a way of life.
Unfortunately, this modern day habit doesn’t change the biological fact that the human brain does not function optimally while multi-tasking. While we have the tendency to congratulate ourselves for our multi-tasking skill, the fact is that to do more than one thing at a time requires that the brain is actually switch quickly between tasks. Multi-tasking depletes the oxygenated glucose in the brain, diminishing our capacity to focus and reduces productivity by as much as 40%.
On the flip side, solo-tasking, or deliberately shutting off all distractions and focusing on one thing for a period of time, increases ability to think creatively and get more done in a shorter period of time.
Even more deliberate focusing of the mind, such as in a practice like meditation, has been shown to reduce and anxiety emotional stress long term and reduce the activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that lights up from fear or worry.
In short, multi-tasking stresses us out, but focusing and being present to one thing can make us more productive, creative and feel more peaceful.
Here are our top tips for breaking the habit of multi-tasking and being more present:
1. Reduce technology distractions
Even though your home or work life may require you to have your devices on, taking as little as 20 minutes to turn everything off and focus on a task in front of you can help you be more productive. If your work or life doesn’t require you to have your devices on all the time, but you notice you do anyway, begin to shift into “check-in times”. Maybe you decide you will only check your email or social media twice per day, or only check your texts or voicemails every few hours. Pick a frequency that feels right to you. Bonus points if you leave your phone off or in airplane mode the rest of the time. *Tip: Maybe you can only do this on weekends, but even 1 day per week of reduced technology distractions can help you be more focused and present in life.
Meditating for as little as 15 minutes a day can help train your brain to focus. A lot of people are intimidated by meditation, but it doesn’t have to be hard. One easy beginner meditation goes like this: eliminate all distractions, find a comfortable chair to sit in, set your timer for 15 minutes, and close your eyes. Decide on your “focus point”: something neutral to bring your attention to, such as your breath, counting silently to yourself, or repeating a word silently to yourself (like “peace”). One of the mistakes beginners make is getting frustrated because they cannot maintain focus, and inevitably their thoughts wander. This is normal! The trick is to simply let these thoughts pass by, and gently bring your attention back to your focus point. This might happen 100 times over a 15 minute period, and that’s okay. You’re building the muscle of focus, and just like physical muscle building, you wouldn’t expect yourself to lift heavy weights when just starting out.
3. Breathe Deeply
When we're stressed out we often unconsciously cut off our own flow of oxygen without knowing it. Next time you feel overwhelmed, notice your breathing. Are you breathing high and shallow into your chest? If so, take three deep belly breaths and observe how your internal state shifts.
4. Notice What’s Going on In Your Body
So often when we’re trying to do too many things at once, we ignore signals from our body telling us to slow down. One tool we recommend is to do a quick body scan multiple times throughout the day: scan each part of your body from your head to your toes and notice any sensations. Tightness in your shoulders, tension in your jaw, or even hunger in your belly all signal a request from your body to do something different. This could be as simple as moving from sitting to standing, eating a protein rich snack, or taking a stretch break. In the long term, overriding or ignoring body signals (because of being too much in your head) can lead to chronic pain, muscle tension, or disease.
The bottom line: multi-tasking may feel like the modern way of doing things, but this bad habit could be doing more harm than good. Choosing to slow down and bring more presence into your life can enhance your health, happiness, and productivity.