Updated: Mar 5
Google it. I dare you. Just look at the number of articles, quick tips, YouTube videos, even self-help books. There are several experts out there to try and help with your dilemma. But can they? Is it possible?
“How can I be a better multitasker?”
As a professional coach, I am not sure I will offer the type of advice you are probably seeking. Because, bottom-line, we, as humans, are not meant to multitask. There, I said it! However, before you storm out of the room seeking other advice, hear me out!
Humans and their predecessors in the evolutionary line have walked the Earth for roughly 6 million years! The term “multitasking” was just coined in 1965 when the legendary computer company, IBM, released a report highlighting the capabilities of its latest computer. The term has only been around for a fraction of our existence! Better yet, the term was never intended to be used in human situations, it was used to discribe a computer!
We live in a world full of distractions. We also live in a world where we have instantaneous information at our fingertips. We demand prompt responses from others and feel obligated to deliver the same in return. In fact, the average person checks their phone 96 times a day, that’s about once every 10 minutes! AND, I was able to look up this information just now on my phone (just to prove the point and the phone was within reach), thanks to research done by Asurion!
We simply cannot give 100% to two different activities; our attention needs to be split. Some activities take little attention which allows us to do another at the same time. But even that can come at a cost. Have you ever tried talking on the phone while driving? Before you know it, you are at your destination but cannot recall if the traffic lights were red, yellow, or green during your travels. Or do you listen to podcasts while going for a run? It helps pass the time while providing a distraction. The psychological term for this is Inattentional Blindness. Now THAT is a term worth looking up a few YouTube videos. But not to be distracted now... moving right along!
So, I’d argue that the question isn’t about multitasking. The question is more about our ability to focus. But this also is a question that has been plaguing the human existence for some time. Ask Hugo Gernsback about it.
In 1925, he invented the Isolator Helmet to eliminate outside distractions. That clever idea didn’t quite take off like he was hoping for. Thank goodness. Just imagine how distracting the actual helmet might be! But researchers have discovered that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to distractions. Almost 50% of the time, it is our mind itself that causes the “mind wandering”. Our own inner-thoughts can take us off-course from what we are trying to focus on!
As any elementary school teacher can tell you, “Brain-breaks” are a necessity in the day to continue to have the children’s attention for any amount of time. The same can be said for adults. Some studies from the 1990’s indicate that adults can only focus for about 90 minutes at a time. To be able to maintain that level of focus, a 15-minute break is needed before going back to a task that takes intentional focus.
In the words of Ted Lasso, from the AppleTV show, “Be a goldfish!” His explanation is that they are the happiest animal in the world due to their forgetful 10-second memory. Talk about a short attention span! If you want to be happy, and move on from discouraging moments in life, that might be good advice. But if you are looking to optimize your focus, multitasking is a great way to do the opposite and give you that short and forgetful goldfish-like memory. Research has shown that multitasking can impact both the working memory and long-term memory functions in humans.
Then again, maybe we are discounting the memory of the goldfish too much, because since the 1950’s, studies have disproven the myth of the 10-second memory. They can recall information for weeks, months, even years! So maybe in that case, we really should be like goldfish!
For ideas on how to enhance focus, try these tips:
Work in blocks, devoting time to specific tasks.
Schedule various “brain breaks” throughout the day.
Practice mindfulness: be intentional about when and how often you are checking your phone and/or email.
Preface with others on your response time so they have an expectation on when to receive an answer.
Turn off your phone when you can, especially in the evenings/nights, or when you are in the company of others.