Recently I read an article that struck a chord with me entitled “This Is How To Increase Your Attention Span: 5 Secrets From Neuroscience”. The piece made the point that if you want to increase your attention span, you’ve got to stop multitasking as much as possible.
While multitasking is often necessary in our fast moving world, I truly believe that we must find a balance to perform at our best. In this regard, my rationale is in line with the article. A wide segment of the population struggles with the pressure to multitask. The last decade hasn’t helped. With the increase of technology in our lives, the downsizing of many companies looking to squeeze more from their workforce, et al. people seem to be far more stressed out than ever before. They’re expected to do more for the same pay and on top of that, they’re expected to keep up with a 24/7 social life via social media, text, email, etc.
So all things considered, how exactly does one find balance in a world that encourages over-stimulation? That’s a tricky question, but it comes down to understanding the cognitive “penalties” associated with multi-tasking. As the article points out, juggling several activities divides our attention among tasks. This results in diminished quality as you’re more likely to make errors. Additionally, it can make everything take longer compared to having done them one by one. The article quotes a book entitled “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World” to illustrate the point:
…if the two goals both require cognitive control to enact them, such as holding the details of a complex scene in mind (working memory) at the same time as searching the ground for a rock (selective attention), then they will certainly compete for limited prefrontal cortex resources… The process of neural network switching is associated with a decrease in accuracy, often for both tasks, and a time delay compared to doing one task at a time.
The article humorously pointed out that some who read this point will balk, “I’m an excellent multi-tasker!” In fact, this implies that you’re worse at it than others. The book goes on:
…it has been shown that people who believe that they are good at multitasking tend to be those who do the worst on laboratory tests of multitasking, leading the study authors to conclude that “participants’ perceptions of their multi-tasking ability were poorly grounded in reality.”
Yikes! How’s that for a reality check? While multitasking might offer you some emotional rewards, it doesn’t necessarily make you better at what you’re doing. Feeding that emotional need to socialize or entertain ourselves is simply another disadvantage with which the connected world has plagued us.
My advice—and what the data shows—is that you shouldn’t attempt to juggle multiple things at once, but take your time and focus on the task at hand. Try your best to avoid outside distractions. Work in an environment that makes this easier for you.
Obviously, we all want to be able to have it all. Sometimes, however, we have to humble ourselves and realize that slow and steady wins the race.