Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter
Modern technology pushes us to multitask, but a neuroscientist says we need more focus to preserve brain power
When I ask people at what age they feel they were (or are) the sharpest, it is shocking to me that no matter their current age – 20s, 50s, 80s – they always say their peak performance was 10, and often 20, years earlier. It does not have to be that way. Your best brain years can be ahead of you, not behind. Recent studies show that if you can change the way you think, you can change the wiring in your brain to improve its function and health.
I have spent my career researching how the brain best learns, reasons and makes sound decisions, as well as how to strengthen it. My goal is to accelerate the discovery of ways to ensure our brains remain more vibrant, supporting our need to make sound financial decisions, solve problems and retain creativity. In my recent book, Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Creativity, Energy and Focus, I condense 30 years of research into tips on how you can rev up your brain's performance at any age.
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Many scientifically proven strategies to boost your mental performance involve easily embraceable, common-sense tactics that can have an immense impact on the long-term health of your most important natural resource. One such tactic is eliminating toxic multitasking.
Why Multitasking Fails
So often we find ourselves in environments that erroneously place a high value on being able to multitask, the prevailing perception being that the more you can do at once, the more expertly intelligent and efficient you are. Alarmingly, some people even believe that multitasking is a good workout for the brain.
This type of thinking is damaging to your health.
Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.
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The truth is, your brain is not designed to do more than one thing at a time. It literally cannot achieve this, except in very rare circumstances. Instead, it toggles back and forth from one task to the next. For example, when you are driving while talking on the phone, your brain can either use its resources to drive or to talk on the phone, but never both. Scans show that when you talk on the phone, there is limited activation of your visual brain – suggesting you are driving without really watching. This explains how we can sometimes end up places without knowing exactly how we got there.
Frequently switching between tasks overloads the brain and makes you less efficient. It's a formula for failure in which your thoughts remain on the surface level and errors occur more frequently.
Multitasking, though, can be a difficult habit to break. It's more common among teenagers and young adults who are constantly connected to email, smart phones and social media apps, but older technology users also seek the immediate satisfaction of beeps, dings and buzzes. Each creates an addicting release of dopamine in the brain, which perpetuates the need for speed and ceaseless stimulation, making the cycle more difficult to break.
Time for a Change
If you are a chronic multitasker, there is good news: You are never too old (or too young) to be proactive about brain health and performance. Recent studies provide evidence that adopting healthier thinking habits and improved cognitive strategies can rejuvenate your mind, reversing its clock by decades.
When you train your brain to think more strategically and efficiently, measurable improvements register on the biological level. Our own studies show that after only six hours of training, subjects can experience upsurges in neuron-nourishing blood flow, the genesis of new brain cells, improved communication between regions of the brain and increased white matter growth.
Consistent single-tasking helps ensure that your decision-making skills last late into your senior years. In "Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions," a recent study of rational ability in people age 50 to 80, sponsored by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the biggest predictor of a sound decision-maker was a high capacity for strategic attention, the ability to filter the most important information from less relevant data. Even better, the study found that strategic attention actually increases with age. And single-tasking is one of the best ways to prime the mind for strategic attention. (See tips for making better decisions from the study's authors here.)
(MORE: Why Older Minds Make Better Decisions)
3 Steps to Single-Tasking
Start your journey toward better brain health by adopting a single-tasking lifestyle in which getting things done sequentially is the rule. Your brain was wired for deep and innovative thinking, but that's impossible to achieve if you're trying to make it go in two or more directions at once. It takes a concerted effort to leave the chaotic addiction of multitasking behind, but the benefits are immediate and immense. It will increase your creativity, energy and focus. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Give your brain some down time. You will be more productive if, several times a day, you step away from mentally challenging tasks for three to five minutes. Get some fresh air, for example, or just look out the window. Taking a break will help make room for your next inspired idea because a halt in constant thinking slows the mind's rhythms to allow more innovative "aha" moments.
- Focus deeply, without distraction. Silence your phone, turn off your email and try to perform just one task at a time. Think it's impossible to break away? Start with 15-minute intervals and work your way up to longer time periods. Giving your full attention to the project at hand will increase accuracy, innovation and speed.
- Make a to-do list. Then identify your top two priorities for the day and make sure they are accomplished above all else. Giving the most important tasks your brain's prime time will make you feel more productive. Or, as Boone Pickens said, "When you are hunting elephants, don't get distracted chasing rabbits."
These tips — along with a healthy diet, adequate rest (about eight hours a night) and regular aerobic exercise (three times a week for 50 minutes) — will keep your mind and body functioning well. Thanks to medical advances, more of us will live to 100 and beyond, but our peak brain performance comes, at best, at about half that age. So our bodies live almost another lifetime after our brains' natural peak. This is why we all need to make a concerted effort to make our brains smarter. Don't let your brain go backward. Your future depends on it.
Below, you can view Dr. Chapman's recent TED talk, "Make Your Brain Smarter: It’s Not What You Think."