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If you’re fed up with feeling like your productivity isn’t where it should be, or that you’re not being nearly as productive as you know you could be, it’s time to do things differently.

One of the reasons we’re finding it so hard to get things happening is because of the way we have adapted to using our new technology. Whilst designed to make us more efficient with our time and energy, somewhere this got lost in translation as our desire to connect, not miss out and keep up to speed has resulted in us spending an average of 10 and half hours each day online, including three hours on our smartphones. This is contributing to our increasing sense of overwhelm, frustration, stress, and falling productivity.

The science around the terrible cognitive cost of multitasking has been understood for some time; the reduction in our ability to pay attention, increase in errors, the loss of creativity and the cognitive exhaustion that comes from asking the brain to work in a way it wasn’t designed. No wonder multitasking or task switching is associated with a drop of 40% in our productivity.

While we know multitasking sucks, the problem is knowing how to overcome the allure of that Siren Song of getting a couple of items ticked off our to-do list, and the heady rush of a little extra dopamine that is our reward.

Other than lashing yourself to the boat mast as you navigate the choppy seas of everyday busyness, there are a couple of things that can assist to minimise the impact of multitasking on our productivity.

1. Make the conscious choice to monotask instead.

O.K., this is stating the obvious but is also the key to enhancing your ability to recognise when you are multitasking. Aha! Yes, here I am speaking to a colleague on the phone while surreptitiously checking my emails at the same time.

Being a millennial, our daughter naturally thinks it is just older fuddy-duddy brains that can’t handle two things at once. While travelling in her gap-year she would occasionally Skype home to have a chat. Not only could we hear the clicking of her fingers on the keyboard as she typed messages to her friends elsewhere, but we would also have to check in to ask if she was still engaged with the conversation, as her attention was clearly somewhere else!

Science has revealed how multitasking is the one brain function that gets worse with practice. Chronic serial multitaskers fragment their attention so much that they become worse at paying attention to single tasks compared to infrequent multitaskers. Oops.

Awareness provides you with a choice. You can carry on, knowing you’ll pay the price with greater inaccuracy, time cost and fatigue, or press pause and decide which of the two tasks warrants your full attention first and to then complete them sequentially.

The key is in the planning. Either at the end of the day or before starting the next prioritise your jobs for the day and pick the top three only. This allows you to get straight onto the first item, and by allocating time for quiet uninterrupted work before opening up the doors to the barrage of interruptions you know will be waiting to see you, you receive the dopamine reward of getting good work done early, and that lovely motivating anticipation of “Play it again Sam.”

2. Be more mindful.

The worst aspect of multitasking is how much of our precious time we fill dross, mindlessly slipping over to check our Twitter feed or update our Facebook status rather than getting on with the job at hand.

“But, it’s only for a moment!”, you cry.
“It gives my mind a break.”

It doesn’t, though we’ve become very good at kidding ourselves. That 2.8-second interruption, “Have you got a moment?”, translates into up to 24 minutes of lost focused time.

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular over the last few years as a way of reducing stress and enhancing our attention. Recent research has shown how practising mindfulness can alleviate some of the brain-fry we are inflicting on our noggins.

This study revealed how the short-term benefits of mindfulness practice were more heavily weighted in favour of heavy multimedia multitaskers. While that’s no excuse to pretend multitasking isn’t harmful to our cognition, at least there is some potential respite to our self-inflicted cognitive pain.

How the mindfulness practice works is by narrowing our bandwidth of focus, improving how well we pay attention and reducing mind wandering. It’s quick to work too. Just 8 minutes of breath-focused meditation has been shown to lead to an increase in sustained performance.

So if productivity is your game, start by becoming aware of when you are multitasking and choose to monotask instead. Secondly, adopting a more mindful approach to slow your mind will enable you to notice more and see your productivity rise.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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