You may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time but this doesn’t mean you can multitask. In fact, multitasking—the ability to pay attention to multiple things at once—is a myth. Studies show we are biologically incapable of it. So instead of multitasking, a term that implies a simultaneous attention to the tasks at hand, what our brains actually do is switch tasks rapidly. Each time you “quickly” check email during a meeting or Facebook in a class or Instagram at dinner, you are removing focus from the present moment (the meeting, the lecture, the conversation) and shifting your focus to something else. It’s a stop/start cycle. This sequential task switching is time consuming and effortful.
As John Medina, author of Brain Rules, writes:
That’s why people find themselves losing track of previous progress and needing to start over, perhaps muttering things like “Where was I?” each time they switch tasks.
Multi-tasking undermines productivity, creativity and our ability to get things done, not to mention the toll it takes on relationships and the accidents that it causes. Many believe that it is creating permanent changes in our brain, especially in the vulnerable brains of young people. As Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, writes:
…according to the Stanford consensus, the longer students have spent working in a semi-distracted state, the harder it becomes to rebuild an ability to concentrate on something hard, like a knotty chapter from a philosophy text, or a tricky calculus problem set.
Many are incapable of concentrating for more than a few minutes at a time. Email, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook beckon. So what can we do? One effective strategy is to Time Chunk. Block out periods of time where we do one thing at one time.
One of my favorite time chunking approaches is the Pomodoro Technique. It is a simple time management philosophy that maximizes focus using a simple kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, hence the name “pomodoro.” The idea is to set the timer to work in intense 25 minute spurts on a specific task—doing bills, writing a paper, reading—and then take a refreshing 5 minute break. After four “pomodoros,” (100 minutes of intense focus plus 15 minutes of break time) you take a 15 to 20 minute break.
Lifehacker praises it for its distraction-fighting brain-training benefits:
The Pomodoro Technique can help you power through distractions, hyper-focus, and get things done in short bursts, while taking frequent breaks to come up for air and relax. Best of all, it’s easy. If you have a busy job where you’re expected to produce, it’s a great way to get through your tasks.
Focusing on hard work for uninterrupted periods of time is challenging but necessary to get anything worth doing done. The Pomodoro Technique is one of many actionable ways to train yourself to complete tasks faster, better and with less energy.
Bottom Line: The ability to focus is an essential 21st century skill that can be learned, even in the face of tempting distractions. If you chase two rabbits, both will escape. Stay focused!