Can you remember the last time you sat, walked or talked 5 minutes without checking your phone? How about enjoying a meal without part of your brain “on call” for an incoming call? For anyone who has had a conversation with someone while they texted, you know that the person’s attention is divided (and ability to converse is diminished). Turns out, it’s also ineffective. While multi-tasking has been touted as a badge of honour in modern life, our brains are not biologically wired to manage more than one stimulus at once.
A 2014 study found that interruptions as brief as two to four seconds were enough to double or even triple the number of errors on an assigned task. A Stanford University study linked teenagers’ multitasking computer habits with the loss of the ability to focus. The findings could extend to adults who are equally as susceptible to interruptions stopping their flow.
It is certainly possible to do multiple things at once (walking and talking), but for those tasks that require your attention (having a conversation), one of the tasks always suffers when your brain manages multiple task processing at the same time. The alternative is to stop the multi-tasking and do one thing at a time: it’s called mono-tasking or single tasking.
Dane Jensen, CEO of Performance Coaching, the partner organization with Medcan Coaching, says that almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it. It’s a simple concept – paying attention to what we are doing when we are doing it – yet it’s hard to execute with all the dings and pings in our lives.
“When the brain is switching from task to task, it consumes more glucose. Therefore, it takes more energy – literal, physical energy in the form of calories – to accomplish the same amount of work. It can be a real energy drain if it’s your default way of working,” says Jensen.
One way to increase mono-tasking is to approach time management differently; by managing priorities, rather than time.
Jensen says that time is just one dimension to consider, and it’s a limited dimension at that.
“Really high performers focus on energy management,” says Jensen. “What they know is that if they bring a different amount of energy to a specific amount of time, they can be a lot more accomplished. Just consider what you can get done when you are energized versus when your energy is depleted or flat.”
“Many people are aware of energy cycles in the context of sleep but not as many know that these cycles continue during the work day,” says Jensen. “Human beings go through varying cycles of energy through the day, so when you notice your patterns, you can go with your optimal flow and focus.”
“We are built to be sprinters, not marathon runners,” says Jensen. “What Anders Ericsson found in his original research into deliberate practice was that the people who become true masters at something work on a singular task in 90 to 120 minute chunks, with 10 to 15 minute breaks in between. They don’t work straight through the day– because the breaks are where the energy comes from to stay focused. But, you have to take breaks in a relatively specific type of way. You can’t take a break in a way that saps more energy than you gain.
“Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, who is really smart about this stuff, divides energy into four different sources: physical, spiritual, mental and emotional energy. When you take a break, you want to structure your break to meet one of those needs,” says Jensen. “So if your job is very mental or cognitive, you want to take a break that focuses on one of the other types of energies like a walk. An emotional break does not mean cry in the bathroom. It could mean a fulfilling talk with your partner or child – to gain some emotional energy over the course of the break.”
So to stay on the mono-tasking trail, be sure to plan intentional breaks (those that sharpen your so-called saw blades, not dull them down). And with regard to your phone, try to keep it out of sight unless it’s part of your singular task.