When it comes to productivity, we always hear that focus is the key. While this statement is true, we must understand that in order to achieve optimum focus, we also need to know how our brain performs in terms of its cognitive abilities. Once we recognised this, we can easily train our brain to stay focused and productive amidst many distractions.
In their research, Cognitive Neuroscientists Kyle Mathewson and Sayeed Kizuk demonstrated that when human beings are paying attention to something, that information is processed in a continuous manner.
“We are bombarded with so much information and stimulation that we can’t possibly process it all at once. Whether it be commuting, engaging in our work, studying for a class, or working out, our brains select the useful information and ignore the rest, so that we can focus on a single or a few items in order to make appropriate responses in the world,” says Kyle Mathewson.
However, while our brain is doing its job to help us focus in an environment full of distractions, we are also doing some activities that can kill our productivity and hamper our brain performance.
Our Limited Memory
Researchers have found that in 1986, people received around 40 newspapers full of information on a daily basis, but in 2007, which marked the popularity of emails, digital photography and social networking sites, this has skyrocketed to 174. Though the study has been conducted a few years ago, it’s safe to say that this number is increasing as the years go by.
Thanks to the different stages of our memory, which act as filters to help protect us from information overload, we don’t need to keep in our brain all the things we see and hear around us.
According to Cognitive Psychology, our memory system is divided into two types: long-term memory and short-term memory. While long-term memory (permanent storage) can store almost an unlimited amount of information for extended periods of time, short-term memory, on the other hand, has a limited capacity. Because of this limitation, humans can only hold a few numbers of items in their working memory.
But what is working memory?
Short term memory is perceived as the “thing” and refers only to the temporary, brief storage of information. Working memory is conceived as the “process”, which involves both the temporary storage and manipulation of information in the short-term memory. Thus, working memory is deemed as the active version of the short-term memory.
The Capacity of Working Memory
According to the popular “The Magic number 7” experiment of Psychologist George Miller in 1956, the working memory is limited to 7 ±2 pieces of information. This means that the number of items we can hold in our memory is between 5 and 9.
But recent studies suggest that this capacity can vary widely. In a study conducted by Psychologist Nelson Cowan and his colleagues, they discovered that the estimates are actually lower, approximately 4 things at one time if people don’t use tricks to store the information. The capacity of working memory also depends on the category of information and their features, such as remembering more digits than letters or familiarising more short words than longer ones.
All new information in working memory is impermanent. The information can either be decayed or replaced or encoded to long-term memory. Because of this, it can be challenging for some people to integrate more than five bits of information at the same time.
The Importance of Working Memory
For researchers, working-memory is fundamental to the functioning of the brain, as it is associated with other important abilities such as intelligence. With the constant introduction of new information and experience on a daily basis, our working memory is susceptible to interruption and interference. And one of the habits that could affect the performance of our working memory is multitasking.
Art Markman, Psychology and Marketing professor at the University of Texas in Austin, points out that “When working memory is filled, performance on cognitive tasks suffers. Multitasking taxes working memory by requiring you to hold in mind information about two or more distinct tasks simultaneously.” He also added that “in order to multitask effectively, you need to decrease the amount of working memory that a task requires. And that’s where habits come in.”
Multitasking and Productivity
Experts defined multitasking as:
- Doing more than two tasks at once
- Shifting focus from one thing to another
- Executing different tasks in rapid succession
Many people think that multitasking is a good habit and that it can save time and energy when they perform different tasks at once. But this was a thing in the past as more and more studies reveal the negative effects of multitasking, especially to our brain health.
So, how bad is multitasking to our brain and memory? Let’s say extremely bad.
- Temporarily drops IQ by 15 points (University of London study), and lowers the density of grey matter in the brain (University of Sussex study)
- Reduces attention span, affects learning and disrupts working memory (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal)
- Reduces focus and concentration. “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” (Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, and Author)
- Hampers creativity and innovation. “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.” (Earl Miller, Neuroscientist)
- Damages the brain responsible for emotional intelligence, including self and social awareness. (Travis Bradberry, Author and Emotional Intelligence Expert)
- Increases stress and burnout. “… the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain”. (Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, and Author)
Because multitasking decreases your brain’s efficiency and mental performance, your productivity level also declines! Doing two tasks at once has been found to reduce productivity by up to 40%!
According to Psychology Professor, Hal Pashler, performing two challenging tasks simultaneously will result in reduced productivity. “You can’t do two demanding, even simple tasks, in parallel.”
The 2009 Stanford University research of Clifford Nass may further explain why. In his study, Nass found out that heavy multitaskers were: less mentally organised, worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant ones, and had struggled at switching from one task to another.
Is there a way to avoid the negative effects of multitasking? Of course there is!
- Nass suggested limiting the tasks to 2 (two) at any given time. He also recommenced the “20-minute rule”, in which you must focus and spend 20 minutes in one task before switching your attention to another task.
- Use the “Chunking” strategy. With this technique, you set aside a chunk of time to concentrate on one task all at once instead of doing it throughout the day. Chunking eliminates the need for performing from one task to another. But this strategy can also be only effective when done with greater focus and efficiency.
- Create a to-do-list. Whether you are using the traditional list or the digital version, this strategy can be effective in helping you organise your tasks and your schedule; thus, helping you focus on certain tasks in a day.
“To better understand how the brain and mind works, can help us improve performance and attention in our everyday lives, to improve our safety, increase our work productivity, do better at school, and perform better in sports, ” explains the Cognitive Neuroscientists Kyle Mathewson.
Once you are used to it, multitasking can be a really hard habit to break. So, if you want to boost your productivity and achieve peak brain performance, just always remember: go easy on yourself, concentrate on one task at a time and give yourself a break. Your brain will thank you for it.
Multitasking divides your attention and leads to confusion and weakened focus. – Deepak Chopra
Hit your Goals and Beat Distractions!
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