Turns out that multitasking, that Swiss army knife approach to task completion has increasingly been getting the side-eye by scientists and medical professionals alike. Multitasking is not a thing our brains are "good" at, and it seems nobody has a “gift” for it.
What's more, it encourages a habit of perpetual distraction. Stanford Researcher Anthony Wagner put it this way: “When [we’re] in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, [we’re] not able to filter out what’s not relevant to [our] current goal. That failure to filter means [we’re] slowed down by irrelevant information.”
MIT Neuroscientist Earl Miller digs a little deeper:
When we shift between tasks, the process often feels seamless—but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts. Say you need to write an article for the fabulous Sweat Nation website and you get the familiar email notification, when you finally return to the article, your brain has to expend valuable mental energy refocusing on the task, backtracking, and fixing errors. Not only does this waste time, it decreases your ability to be creative. Innovative thinking, after all, comes from flowing in extended concentration, i.e. the ability to follow an idea of thought down a network of new paths. When you try to multitask, you typically don’t get far enough down any road to stumble upon something original because you’re constantly switching and backtracking. I may be speaking to someone really personal here..."ahem, myself!"
It turns out multitasking doesn’t win us any awards for efficiency — what it does do is making a bad juggler of mostly irrelevant information.
Okay, you say, but we’ve all heard that multitasking is bad for us. The bigger question is: What can we do to keep ourselves mentally sharp for as long as possible (despite our multitasking tendencies)?
Let's start with the practice of focusing on one thing at a time. Much like the Morning Routine approach of tackling one goal at a time, exercising your mind is an act of singular discipline.
Let's stop pretending that mental juggling will keep you or me sharp as a tack until our 90's.
Try these activities instead:
Keep learning (new skills). That’s broad, of course, but be sure that whatever you learn has application. The process of learning and applying new information stimulates brain cells and encourages communication across the various parts of the brain. Oh, and pick something that’s genuinely outside your current knowledge base. If you’re a computer tech whiz, try learning a new language instead of teaching yourself new software. I.e., pick a challenge—not an easy “A.”
Muscle up your memory with using all of your senses. Learning or experiencing something new using just one sense is great, but is more impactful when paired with other senses. If you’re learning a new language, for instance, make sure you incorporate audio lessons into your textbook study. If you’re teaching yourself about wine, make sure that you absorb both the flavor and the smell. The alignment of these two in your mind improves recall and cements the relationship of new information.
Save your mental processing power for what matters. Don’t spend so much energy trying to remember everything—like what to buy at the store, how to use the new remote to turn on the stereo, or what your coworker’s address is. Write it down. Save your mental energy for remembering and applying more useful things, like how to make that pot roast you recently learned in a cooking class.
Repeat what’s important. If you want to remember something, say it back to yourself (or write it down) as soon as you’ve heard it. This small action will help cement that piece of information in longterm memory.
Be social. Positive social relationships are key to mental acuity, as they force the mind to process different perspectives without the added stress of external expectations. Also, relationships offer relief from grief and stress, which are known to have a toxic effect on the brain. And, if you find new social environments—say, through volunteerism—you can grow your understanding of others’ life circumstances, building empathy.
Sleep. This is a given, right? But how many times have you heard someone “jokingly” quip, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”? In today’s harried culture, that’s no joke—and the brain suffers because of it. A strong 7-8 hours of sleep every night gives your mind the chance to clean up toxins, solidify memories, and process experiences that rushed by us during the day. anything less is literally putting you into an earlier grave. Sleep is easily the lowest hanging fruit with the greatest benefit to your existence.
Exercise. You’ve heard this a million times, but that’s because it’s true. Recent studies have shown that beyond its clear physical benefits, exercise increases secretion of neuroprotective factors in the brain (which help prevent stroke and brain disease).
Quit smoking, avoid heavy drinking, and refrain from impact sports. Smoking thins the brain’s very importance cortex, binge drinking can shrink the brain’s frontal lobe over time, and impact sports can directly (and irreversibly) damage brain matter. Avoid these activities. (Kind of a no-brainer, right?)
All of these give you a template for great mental maintenance, but there’s something else that should be noted:
Whatever you choose to focus on, follow through. If there’s one thing I’ve been guilty of in my adult life, it’s hopping from project to project without crossing all my Ts and dotting my Is. I become easily distracted by other projects that seem more exciting, even exercise. But the downside is clear: My brain doesn’t have the chance to work through the completion of a task, leaving much of its processing power unused. What’s more, I don’t have the chance to celebrate my “wins” because I don’t make it to the finish line.
There’s also this pesky psychological principle known as the Zeigarnik Effect, which claims that our minds get stuck on uncompleted tasks—and unresolved relationships. Those tasks and relationships take up valuable memory and mental energy wishing for closure os something like that, when it should be applied to acquiring new experiences.
Here's to a better focus to us all!!!
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