Albert Einstein said: “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
This quote highlights a damning fault in our attention spans that we’ve started to think of as normal.
Busy lives means lots of distractions coming from every angle. Many people are working longer hours, but still find they’re running out of time to complete everything. This is when the art of multitasking becomes an attractive option.
When you learn how to multitask well, it can be incredibly satisfying to tick multiple tasks off your list. However, research suggests you might not be as productive in these moments as you think.
In a blog post on Psychology Today, life coach and writer Susanna M. Halonen says once we get used to multitasking, it is almost impossible not to do it. This is because our brains get a thrill from completing lots of things. We then get conditioned to look for that thrill, and only think we’re doing well when we feel it.
In reality, the thrill comes from a release of dopamine, according to Halonen, which we end up mistaking for actually being productive. Thanks to this rewarding rush of hormones, we’re likely to ignore distractions and see them as a good thing. We can also make more mistakes because we’re being more optimistic about our work.
When you think about it, when you’re distracted, how productive can you really be? For example, according to the research group Dscout, we touch our phones around 2,617 times a day. Overall, that meant participants in the study were looking at their phones about two and a half hours every day, while heavier users were approaching nearly four hours. That’s a lot of time that could be better spent getting other things done.
There is evidence multitasking might actually be causing these distractions. In 2009, a study from Stanford University found that multitaskers overall had poorer attention spans, and were worse at completing tests of spatial perception and memory than people who focused on one thing at a time. According to the authors, multitaskers “couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing.”
In 2015, another study from Iowa State University found that students who spent more time on social media risked having a lower GPA score. They concluded that Facebook wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was self-regulation.
Halonen says it’s possible to get the same dopamine rush through monotasking — focusing on single tasks and ticking them off one by one. This reward system is healthier than multitasking, and less likely to mean you’re misleading yourself.
It will take a fair bit of self discipline, but ultimately it’s all about conditioning yourself to behave differently. Once you start having healthier habits, you’ll find it gets easier. Here are a few things you can do:
- Avoid multiple screens — Try to appoint yourself time throughout the day to check emails, IMs, and text messages. This way you won’t find yourself getting so distracted by notifications flashing up all day.
- Don’t date your phone — If you’re meeting up with someone, avoid checking your phone at the same time. Halonen says if you’re checking Facebook when you’re with someone, you can’t be making the most of talking to your friend. According to some research, just having the phone on the table can reduce empathy and the level of conversation between two people.
- Assign blocks of time to big tasks — When something is going to take a while, it can feel easier to keep putting it off. One thing you can do is assign yourself a block of time, such as 90 minutes, and promise yourself you have complete focus during that time. At least you know it will be over in an hour and a half!
- Get active — One study from the Netherlands found two bouts of moderate physical exercise had a positive effect on the attention spans of children. So if you’re feeling distracted, go out for a walk, or run it out on the treadmill for 20 minutes. You might find you have a new sense of purpose when you return to your desk.
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