Tag Archives: multitasking

How digital distractions drain your productivity

Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.

For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:

Weaken your focus muscle

Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.

In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.

With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.

Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking) 

Doing more than one thing at a time  – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.

Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.

Reduce your brain power

Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments.  In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:

Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.

Step 2 –  rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.

Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.

Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.

Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.

Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.

Impair mental wellbeing

The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.

Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.  One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.

Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.  When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.

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Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption,  read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.


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Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus

Finishing what you start

Whether you’re writing a book or painting a room, it’s often harder to finish a project than to start it. When enthusiasm wanes, fears set in, energy drops or distractions mount, it can be difficult to follow through until you’re 100% done.

Finishing what you start is essential to accomplishing meaningful goals and turning your imagination into reality. If you want to move things out of a perpetual state of incompletion, here are some ways to do just that:

Decide what’s really important to you

Some things aren’t right for you and won’t ever work out, no matter how much effort you put into it. These include jobs, business ventures, and relationships. In such cases, it’s healthy to quit and move on.

Some things are experimental and okay to drop even before you really get into it. You might have started it to gain a different experience, explore new opportunities, satisfy your curiosity, or shake up your routine. Once the purpose is served, you can shift to other stuff despite not being quite done.

Some things you finish just because there’s little left to be done. Although a project might lose its value over time, if you’re 99% complete, it might be worth it to push through to the end.

Some things are true commitments. This is when exercising self-discipline and habitually finishing what you start are necessary.

Years ago, when I began taking piano lessons, I had no specific plans or clear goals. I just wanted to have fun and learn something new. I didn’t know if I’d play piano beyond a few weeks or months. But once my new hobby turned into a real commitment, I bought a piano and got sheet music for songs I wanted to learn. Although playing the piano is purely an avocation, I’m dedicated to it. I follow through and finish playing a piece even when I get bored or frustrated. I show up for my lessons even when I’d rather be going somewhere else.

If you keep putting off a task, ask yourself what’s stopping you and whether you really need to finish it. Do you enjoy it? Is it consistent with your values? Will it move you toward your big goals?

Decide whether to take it off your to-do list completely or move it to your some-day list temporarily. Choosing deliberately allows you to finish vital projects and create space, energy and time for new opportunities. Finish your most important, active projects before you transition to a new set of projects

Break down vague goals into small, actionable steps

Instead of having “write the damn book” or “paint the freaking room” on your to-do list, break down the project into small, actionable steps that lead to the desired outcome. Completing a book involves drafting an outline, churning out content, and revising, editing and finessing your words. Painting a room includes preparing the room, getting the paint and tools, and starting with the ceiling, moving on to the walls, and finishing with the trim.

Visualize not just the desired outcome, but all the steps it will take for you to achieve it. Picture yourself doing the thing you need to get done, then do it. Imagine how you will feel when you’ve completed the project. Bring that feeling into the present, as you take each step to finishing.

Keep a precise schedule or set routines 

Carve out time and mark it on your calendar to perform tasks that will get the job done. Whether you have 15, 30, 60 or 90 minutes, set precise times for when you will start and finish. This strengthens your habit of finishing things you start rather than give up halfway.

Develop a routine of doing the tasks at certain times of the day, when you have more control over what you do. To finish this post, I chipped away at it first thing in the morning until my toddler woke up, for a few days.

If you want to finish writing a book, commit to putting your fingers on the keyboard and start typing when you wake up every morning. Write 1000 words every day until you’re done.

Once you begin a task and build momentum into a project, you get closer to the finish line. Set realistic deadlines — and tie them with rewards — to complete each step in the project. This will help you prioritize, avoid stalling, and keep you moving toward completion.

Despite your daily responsibilities, you can carve out non-negotiable time for your commitments. If you spend just 1 hour every day on the project, you would have dedicated 365 hours to it in one year. That’s way more time than you need for most projects.

Find your natural rhythm

When you’re in the zone, it’s easier to push through, even when you’re working long hours. But lack of rest and breaks can lead to excessive stress and burnout.  And without sufficient sleep and enough exercise, you won’t function at your peak.

Being self-employed enables me to find my natural rhythm and use it to my advantage. Rather than stick with a regular (e.g. 9-to-5) schedule with lunch in between, I incorporate more fluidity into my day.

On a typical (ideal) work day, I get up early, engage in my morning ritual, and focus on my highest priorities – before my family wakes up. During the day, I answer/send emails, make telephone calls, brainstorm ideas, make notes, read and research, listen to educational podcasts, have lunch, and play with my daughter. My evening routine includes spending time with my family, working, preparing for the next day, and winding down. I shoot for 7-8 hours of sleep, but usually do well with 6. I find that the quality of my work, and the satisfaction I get from it, are way higher when I sync it with my natural rhythm.

I now work in shorter time blocks, but my output — at least on the things that really matter — has stayed consistent and increased in many areas. Personally, I get more done early in the morning or late in the evening, when I’m naturally focused and creative.

For those of you who work in an office or are tied to a traditional schedule, make sure to regularly get up from your workstation, stretch, and walk around. Energy management experts suggest unplugging for 10 to 20 minutes after every 90 minutes of work.


If you’re super busy but can’t finish things, you might simply be doing too much at once. Multitasking is often listed as a desired skill for many jobs. But the fact is, multitasking is a myth. You can “switch task” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background task” (do two or more mundane tasks like watch TV while you eat or listen to music while you exercise), but doing two things at once doesn’t really work.

By focusing on one task, before moving on to the next, you not only can boost your productivity, but also finish and accomplish things with less busyness. When you need to finish something, avoid interruptions and temptations that make you feel productive, but keep you from getting critical work done. Declutter your desk. Turn off the alerts on your telephone and computer. Tell others when you need to quiet time.

Let go of perfectionism 

Sometimes things go unfinished due to fear of failure, disappointment, and criticism. We can avoid all of that if we keep the project unfinished. You edit, revise and overhaul so you can refer to your work as a work-in-progress, instead of a work product.

Doing things perfectly carries a high cost. It can intensify your stress level, cause you to miss deadlines, affect the quality of your relationships, and interfere with meaningful pursuits. Have a cut-off time for when you will stop making tweaks that no one will really notice and makes no true difference.

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Finishing what you start is essential to being truly productive, rather than just super busy. Having the discipline to follow through and complete important projects paves the way for real accomplishment.


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Photo by: Tim Geers

Multitasking: 6 reasons to quit

In today’s fast-paced, techno-crazed world, multitasking is a highly valued skill. When time is short, performing two or more tasks simultaneously – instead of focusing on just one – seems like the way to go.

Multitasking can make you feel important, give you a sense of control, and reduce the pain of a boring task or difficult activity.

But when it comes to true productivity, multitasking fails.

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing.

As Dave Crenshaw explains in The Myth of Multitasking, the most you can do is “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background tasking” (do two or more mundane tasks like watch TV while you eat or listen to music while you exercise.)

The ability to juggle multiple projects and priorities is key to sustainable success. But it is not to be confused with being an expert multitasker. Having a predilection to multitask can actually fuel problems for you, your organization, your team, your clients/customers, and the community you serve.

Here are 6 reasons to quit multitasking:

1. It gobbles up your time.

The executive who tries to listen to a client on the telephone, check his emails, and give instructions to his assistant all at once might think he is saving time. But because he cannot process three things simultaneously, his attention to each will fade in and out and he will do all poorly.

You lose time when you switch back and forth from one task to the next. Although it might take only a few seconds to stop one and start another, the wasted time adds up. You also lose momentum on any progress you’ve made on the prior task.

 2.    It heightens stress.

Dealing with multiple things at once can make you feel overwhelmed, frazzled and drained. Switching quickly from one task to another overloads your brain and causes it to slow down. This leaves you with more incomplete tasks, which creates more stress.

3.    It makes you more prone to making mistakes.

Studies show that those who try to multitask not only take 50% longer to finish a task, but also make up to 50% more mistakes. Although multitasking is better suited for routine tasks or familiar activities, it leads to errors in all situations.

In Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains, “Cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies, slower to return to normal speed after an emergency, and more wild in their ‘following distance’ behind the vehicle in front of them.” He notes that talking on the phone while driving is like driving drunk.

4.    It reduces the quality of your work.

Switching tasks requires your brain to refocus and adjust to new stimuli. Full concentration is difficult when you move rapidly from one thing to the next. So the quality of your work suffers.

5.    It does not allow for deep, creative thinking.

Because multitasking keeps your mind busy, drains your energy, and fuels stress, it interferes with creative, higher-level work. When your time is filled with constant activity, interruptions and distractions, you have fewer opportunities to reflect, generate ideas, and brainstorm solutions.

6.    It impairs communication.

If you’re watching TV, typing, texting or dealing with another task, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with another person. You cannot process fully what is being said.

A few nights ago, I sat down to watch a TV show with my sister, Trish. A scene that involved two characters engaging in dialogue triggered a memory for her. This led her to start telling me a story about her experience.

Instead of pausing the show or asking Trish to wait until the scene ended, I tried to listen to the two characters and her at the same time. Naturally, I was only able to catch a few words here and there. I didn’t really get what any of them said.

I could have replayed the scene or had Trish repeat her story. But such options are not always available, especially when you’re in a professional setting or when you don’t know the speaker very well.

Diffused attention blocks clear communication and mindful listening, which makes it harder to process new information and build true connections.

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A more effective alternative to multitasking is single-tasking (monotasking). This involves performing tasks sequentially, one at a time, with breaks in between. Focusing on one thing reduces mistakes, lowers stress and increases productivity. Rather than divide your attention among multiple activities and various distractions, you can hone in on your top priorities, one by one.


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Photo by: Collin Key