You might feel as if you’re achieving a lot by undertaking several tasks at once, but the opposite is true. Neuroscience research shows that multitasking confuses the brain, slows you down and makes you prone to make errors.
With more than 1,000 Inman posts, Bernice Ross is a long-time contributor whose weekly column on real estate trends, luxury, marketing and other best practices publishes every Monday.
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How much time did you spend multitasking yesterday?
If you answered anything other than “zero,” you’ve fallen for one of the great myths of the 21st Century — that you can juggle two or more tasks simultaneously and be more effective than completing one task at a time.
If you were to ask a group of people whether they engage in multitasking, most people would say that they do. But the truth is that multitasking makes us less efficient. No one is able to multitask and achieve a lot due to how the brain is wired.
You probably have heard of the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that processes language and handles higher order thinking. A key part of the prefrontal cortex is known as “Brodmann’s Area 10” and is the primary regulator of concentration and attention. Neuroscientists have nicknamed Brodmann’s Area 10 “Mother.”
“Mother” is involved in higher order cognitive skills like planning future actions, decision-making, taking initiatives, and to some extent, working memory and attention.
“Mother” can only conduct one conscious process at a time. The same is true of computers. They do multiple tasks, but a single processor still completes only one function at a time. In “Mother”’s case, she takes 0.7 seconds to shift gears from one task to another. Consequently, it is impossible to multitask because “Mother” can only do one thing at a time.
Task shifting: Losing your concentration more than you know
According to molecular biologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules, people who claim to be multitasking are actually task shifting. Medina’s research illustrates how costly task shifting can be. For example, if you interrupt an activity to answer a phone call, respond to a text message, or look at a Facebook notification for 30 seconds, it takes you a full five minutes to regain total concentration.
Medina also explains that multitasking confuses “Mother.” His research has shown that the issue is so severe that it can even lead to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Additional studies have shown that people who engage in multitasking (i.e., task shifting) take more time to complete their tasks, and they make 50 percent more errors.
For example, in one study, the researchers divided their experimental subjects based upon the amount of multitasking they did. In each of their three experiments, the people who focused mostly on one task at a time had no problem completing the experimental tasks. Those who engaged heavily in multitasking performed poorly.
The primary reason multitaskers perform so poorly is that the constant switching between tasks makes them more susceptible to distractions such as incoming text messages, Facebook notifications, phone calls, etc.
The study further revealed that multitaskers were unable to avoid thinking about the task they were not doing. The result was that they were much more easily distracted by whatever else was happening in their environment.
They (the high multitaskers) were unable to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by the irrelevant information.
Rule shifting: The formula for making even more mistakes
In addition to task shifting, a second issue is rule shifting. Texting while driving is an example of not only task shifting, but also rule shifting as well.
Specifically, driving requires you to maintain certain a certain speed, change direction, track where you need to turn, plus numerous other requirements. These rules are quite different from the rules that govern how turn on your phone and how to construct words and sentences that you enter into your mobile device.
This is doubly hard for “Mother,” who must manage shifting back and forth between tasks while simultaneously shifting back and forth between two different sets of rules.
Multitasking requires more time, not less
A group of neuroscientists showed that when people shift tasks, they take more time to complete the tasks than if they had completed each task separately.
As one of the scientists points out about drivers using their cell phones:
A mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death because during that time the car is not totally under control and can travel far enough to crash into obstacles the driver might have otherwise avoided.
To really drive this point home, consider this: All 50 states have now set .08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as the legal limit for driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI). According to Medina, driving and texting is the equivalent of having a BAC of .12 percent — that’s 50 percent higher than the level for DUI.
Takeaways for your life and your business
First, stop multitasking now. You’ll work faster, and you’ll make significantly fewer errors. Here are some other steps to take:
When you’re driving, avoid text messaging and instant messaging, even if it’s hands free
While we’re accustomed to having conversations while driving, texting and instant messaging aren’t like normal conversations. The mental process required for operating a mobile device is fundamentally different from the ones required for having a conversation and for driving a car.
This means that when texting or otherwise messaging someone, your focus on driving is undermined. This is dangerous, and state lawmakers in 48 states have made it illegal to text and drive at the same time.
One of the best ways to be accomplish more in less time is to schedule your time in 20-30 minute time blocks. During that time, turn off your notifications and the ringer on your phone, and don’t let others to distract you. At the end of each time block, you can check messages or address any pressing issues if necessary.
Practice being mono-focused
Whether you’re having a conversation, watching a movie or sitting in a meeting, stay focused on completing the task at hand before going on to the next task. If you feel your attention lagging, take a break from the activity.
If you are unable to do that, consciously refocus your attention on completing the activity at hand. If something else distracts you and is more important than what you were doing, then focus on dealing with that issue rather than attempting to multitask.
While breaking the multitasking habit can be difficult, the benefits are well worth it: less time working, being “present,” better outcomes, and more time for you and what you enjoy.
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Bernice Ross, president and CEO of BrokerageUP and RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles. Learn about her broker/manager training programs designed for women, by women, at BrokerageUp.com and her new agent sales training at RealEstateCoach.com/newagent.