Fixing Your Anxiety Potholes: 5 Strategies for a More Efficient and Less Anxious Life (Part Two)

This post is part of a five-part series dedicated to Fixing Your Anxiety Potholes.  Click here to read the rest of the series.

Now that you’ve learned how to cut down your focus on your email by learning to use email more efficiently and effectively, we’re going to pull your focus into an even narrower scope. We’re going to help you kill off that abdominal practice called multitasking.

The Power of Focused Attention: Mastering Myopia

Scattering leaves into the wind isn’t good for your yard, and that’s the same type of mayhem that ensues when you scatter your brain in myriad directions with that so popular concept called multitasking.

One of the reasons we feel compelled to multitask is because it makes us feel good, like we’re accomplishing so much in such a clever manner. Multitasking emotionally fulfills us, according to researcher Zhen Wang, giving us that warm cozy boost we get from feeling oh so efficient from achieving all sorts of stuff all at once.

When we see other people multitask, they also appear to be on the fast track to super-efficiency, and we immediately want to mimic the same actions that appear so successful. Thus we put impossible demands upon our own selves to complete numerous tasks in unison, as it appears our role models can, which only serves to push us deeper into an anxiety pothole as it piles on the stress.

In reality, multitasking not only makes us stressed out as we attempt to live up to ridiculous demands we’ve placed upon ourselves, while actually cutting down on our production levels instead of enhancing them. The tasks we do accomplish while supposedly multitasking may also be of lower quality and certainly less enjoyable than those we achieve when we focus.

Multitasking messes up our brain.

Focusing on more than one task at a single time splits your brain’s focus into divisions known as “spotlights.” Your brain’s spotlights frantically switch from one focus to another, perhaps quickly enough to make you feel like you are doing more than one task at a time, but with the added burden of trying to remember exactly what you were up to each time you switch to a different task.

Does the phrase “Now where the heck was I?” ring a bell?

Multitasking not only pushes our brains’ extremely limited working memory to the brink, but researcher Clifford Nass found it actually makes the working memory less effective. We end up losing the train of thought we had while performing a task, making returning to it a challenging prospect since we don’t recall exactly what we were doing or what stage we were at. He also found multitasking can help disintegrate our ability to filter information and actually make us slower, not quicker, at switching between numerous tasks.

Busting the multitasking myths

More multitasking myths are pointed out by Psychology Today, with a whole list of fallacies surrounding the common practice.

Multitasking increases your brain power. False!

Cliff Nass and Zhen Wang helped prove this one, as already discussed. If you need a visual to help you remember this fact, you can liken the idea of multitasking to cutting up your brain into little bits, with one bit for each task you are trying to do simultaneously. Common sense tells us that one big, unified brain is better suited for doing any task quicker and more effectively that a little bit of brain that’s been cut off from the main control center.

The same inefficiency you get from multitasking applies to any two activities you do at the same time, like walking and chewing gum or listening to music while you work. False! 

Walking and chewing gum is perfectly OK, mainly because neither demands your full attentional focus. Both are sideline activities that your body can perform largely by habit or innate skill. Any task that requires language processing or decision making, on the other hand, are best done without a similar task also in motion or your attention will be pulled, dragged and otherwise mangled as it hops back and forth.

Music falls into its own category, Nass points out, since our brain actually has a special part dedicated solely to music. This lets us listen to our heart’s content while working on other things. Of course, the type of music you choose can serve as a distraction, but that’s another issue altogether. Got Bach? 

Multitasking decreases your stress levels since you’re doing all sorts of things instead of just one. False!

Multitasking scrambles your brain and heightens your stress levels.

Multitasking makes things easier. False!

Multitasking scrambles your brain and makes things harder. It is also a big waste of time and energy when you have to sit and think where you were with each task once you return to it after trying to achieve six other tasks.

When you learn something while multitasking, it sticks with you the same way it would if you were single-tasking. False! 

A study at UCLA gave two groups of people learning trials. One group focused solely on the learning while the other group multitasked during the learning process. Both groups could successfully reproduce what they learned, but those who were multitasking at the time of learning weren’t always exactly sure why they learned it and were unable to explain the rules behind what they were doing. Ouch.

Do robots or trained monkeys come to mind? Thus is the effect of multitasking.

Here comes a somewhat shocking statement straight from the pages of Psychology Today and the book Conquer CyberOverload. Hang it on your fridge or file cabinet or quote to it your boss the next time you’re being lured into multitasking.

Performing two tasks at once, instead of sequentially, multiplies trouble. Multitasking hurts in terms of speed, accuracy, quality of output, and energy consumption. In essence, when you’re multitasking, you’re dimming your bulb, de-powering your brain. You’re so much better off single-tasking. 

So how to you stop this multitasking merry-go-round? We tell you. 

4 Ways to Make the Switch from Multitasking to Single-Tasking

Stop the multiple tab trap. Keeping multiple tabs open on our computer and switching frantically from one to the another does not keep up us on top of things or up-to-date. It instead keeps us reeling. Take it from Leo Widrich, efficiency blogger, writer and founder of Buffer, a tool to more efficiency share on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s what multiple tabs did for him:

With every tab switch it felt as my head would get bigger, whilst I would get less and less done at the same time. Both my brain and my work was rather scattered.

Sound familiar?

Open only one tab at time, finishing work with and closing down the previous one before you do.

Plan your day’s tasks the evening before. This tip also comes from Widrich, who found it incredible more effective and efficient than rushing into work every morning and trying to figure it out. He heightened the effectiveness by brainstorming each task with a work pal and writing a mini-outline on how each task would be completed. Now when morning comes, the blueprint is right in front of him and he can focus on actually doing the task rather than planning what, when and how each task needs to be complete. So can you.

Move your work location at least once per workday. Widrich found moving from one location to another after each task was complete to re-energize his focus to the new task at hand. Those who work from home on a laptop have it made, with the ability to move from the home office to the patio, the living room to nearby coffee shop as necessary. Those with set work stations in an office may need a bit more creativity to make this one work. If you’re really set on the idea, ask your boss how you can make it possible.

Check out distraction-busting apps. If you’re a Mac user and an app fan, the computer-oriented daily blog MakeUseOf notes three that have been especially helpful for focusing on a single task.

Think highlights the active application on which you’re working while blocking out all others with an overlay. You can adjust the opacity of the overlay, but you still can’t click on anything other than the highlighted app.

Isolator is similar to Think, but allows for different effects, like blur and desaturate, to further hide the blocked apps. It also lets you switch to an underlying app to make it active while hiding all others instead. 

Spirited Away uses the same concept but actually minimizes and hides inactive apps if you haven’t touched them after a specific period of time. Say goodbye to distracting windows and hello to focused productivity.

Try the Pomodoro Technique. No, the Pomodoro Technique is not yet another app, but an efficiency technique that consists of five basic steps.

  1. Pick the task you want to complete
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Complete as much as the task as you can in that 25 minutes, stopping when the timer rings
  4. Take a five minute break, then repeat the cycle
  5. Take a 15 to 30 minute break after every four cycles

You can leave the Pomodoro Technique as simple as that, or you can add another layer of organization. Each 25-minute segment is a Pomodoro, and you can keep a running tab on your Pomodoros by making a working list of the tasks and their developments. Check off each Pomodoro, or 25 minutes worth of work, as it is complete. This can help fortify the feeling of achievement you’ll get as you go through your tasks.

The overriding theme of the technique is that frequent breaks are a boon to productivity. Don’t believe it? Take it from 2010 article published in Neuron entitled Enhanced Brain Correlations during Rest Are Related to Memory for Recent Experiences. The article says your memory is enhanced when you give the brain a break, a move that allows it to properly transfer information you just absorbed from the hippocampus to neocortex. That information is stored rather shoddily when you don’t take the rest that’s necessary for your brain to do its thing.

Still don’t believe it? Give it a whirl. The only thing you have to lose is your scattered, unfocused, multitasking mess of a schedule. What you can gain is more cement to fill in more of the potholes. Get more fodder for the filler with our next article that outlines Using To-Do Lists Effectively and Exiling Tasks.

This post is part of a five-part series dedicated to Fixing Your Anxiety Potholes.  Click here to read the rest of the series.