How does multitasking impact focus & concentration?

How’s your focus?

It's safe to say we’re currently living in times of constant change and technological advancement. Our phones and access to technology provide us with unprecedented connectivity to other people and information, but they also provide us with unprecedented opportunities to multitask.

While improving our lives in many ways, these changes present many causes for distractions and loss of concentration. Some of these distractions may cause or alleviate a lack of concentration and focus - whether you’re a teenager preparing for exams or in your sixtieth year on the job. What's more, it’s safe to say the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.

Illustration of man trying to multitask

So what's the risk? As these distractions worsen, work and studies suffer which can lead to a downwards spiral and an inability to work. This article takes a short look at some of the reasons for losing focus and methods you can use today to help improve and alleviate the issues.

Can humans actually multitask?

In our wildly busy lives, multitasking seems like an efficient way to get things done, but there’s a cost to our minds when trying to do everything at once. We're often conditioned to hold this struggle of time and effort as a badge of pride, and some suggest that the ability to multitask is a lesson in efficiency.

However, a 2019 Stanford productivity study concluded that multitasking actually runs counterproductive to focus and concentration. Another study in 2010 found that just 2.5% of the participants could actually multitask (that is, being able to perform several tasks to the same standard at once). This might seem like common sense - the same reason you don’t text while driving - so why don’t we apply this same knowledge when we’re working?

Illustration of man working
What is the impact of multitasking?

The reliance on multitasking often comes at a high cost, leading to frayed tempers, stress and eventual burnout (which we've spoken about here). Moreover, we often don't have the mental capacity (or 'cognitive load' as it's called in neurology) to deal with a range of problems at once.

Furthermore, multitasking means you don't enjoy focusing or completing a task as much because you aren't fully invested in it. As a result, it makes you less attentive, stifles creativity and satisfaction and increases the probability of mistakes.


How does multitasking cause a loss of focus?

Namely, science has shown multitasking causes a brief milliseconds gap in our brains as we switch between tasks. So as you commit to this swap, you have to re-immerse yourself, and the clock keeps ticking - a little like an orchestra changing song midway through a performance.

This is especially true when you're moving through different skillsets - so moving from your taxes to creative work proves more of a challenge as the brain has to power up that part of the brain before switching. This results in each task taking longer than if you were to create a chain of events.

Illustration of a tired mind

Distraction & Loss of focus

There are probably times you're subconsciously multitasking. Tune in to what you're doing, and you'll probably find yourself thinking about what's for lunch as you write a business report (this writer is currently trying his damndest not to think about the salt beef bagel waiting for him). And while it might be okay to multitask occasionally, if you habitually fire off important work emails while losing concentration, you might have to rethink your boundaries.

Doing a single task, one thing at a time, allows you to be in the moment, to focus wholly. With your undivided attention, you'll not only do a better job, you will get through your to-do list faster. This means there's less risk of stress or exhaustion and more time to enjoy some downtime.

How can I improve my focus?

Identify the causes of distraction
Multitasking often is habitual, so make a note every time that your mind wanders. Write down what you’re thinking about and when this occurs and see if a pattern emerges.

Notice your successes
The mind likes narrative and order so practice doing one task at a time. And once its completed, give yourself the satisfaction to properly acknowledge you’ve completed it.

Exercise your body to discipline your mind
Exercise is a discipline for the unfocused mind, it gives your mind something to focus on, which in turn effects your brain when you’re getting down to studies or work.

Get ahead of distraction
If you can, try and anticipate distractions ahead of time and when they do occur, try not to get caught up in them.

Turn off or hide your phone
While timely responses to digital communications are appreciated (and expected by most millennials), instantaneous responses are rarely required.

Practice mindfulness or meditation
With practice, these mental disciplines can help increase concentration and ignore distractions. One basic exercise encourages choosing something to focus on, such as your breathing, an image or a sound and returning to it when your mind starts to wander. Start with 30 seconds and increase the focus time as you become more practiced.

Changing up your lifestyle
Other factors such as poor quality sleep or a bad diet can also leave us feeling foggy and slowing down your train of thought. Improving your lifestyle can help improve the way your mind functions, and your ability to focus on tasks.

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