How to Do One Thing At a Time

By now, we all know that multitasking can be a lose-lose proposition. (Talking on the phone while driving? Dumb idea. Texting while driving? Really dumb idea.) But even seemingly benign multitasking—like chatting with a friend while sending out an office e-mail—isn't as efficient or harmless as we might believe. A recent study published in the science journal NeuroImage revealed that when we attempt demanding tasks simultaneously, we end up doing neither as well as we should, because our brains have cognitive limits. We may think we're doing two things at once, but our brains are actually toggling between them.

What's more, we're also less efficient after we've shut down e-mail and turned off our phones. In a recent experiment at Stanford University, a group of students was asked to spend 30 minutes simultaneously compiling a music playlist, chatting, and writing a short essay. A second group focused on each task individually for 10 minutes each. Afterward, they were given a working memory test... and the single-taskers significantly outperformed their multitasking peers.

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"A tremendous amount of evidence shows that the brain does better when it's performing tasks in sequence, rather than all at once," says Clifford Nass, Ph.D., a professor of communication at Stanford University. "There's a huge cost to your concentration every time you switch gears. We still don't know the long-term effects of chronic multitasking, but there's no question we're bad at it, and it's bad for us."


Amanda A. McGowan, a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner specializing in stress-related disorders, agrees. She thinks that many of her patients who complain of fatigue are suffering the effects of mental distraction and overextension. "Multitasking has long been thought to slow down and even injure the mind," she says, "and those of us who practice Chinese medicine believe it can also injure the body."

Many experts believe, however, that it's possible to repair your power of concentration. Read on as a yoga instructor, acupuncturist, management expert, and others reveal their tricks for breaking the multitasking habit and sharpening your focus.

Savor Your Senses

Ever close your eyes when biting into something delicious? That's your body automatically shutting down one sense— your vision—in order to fully appreciate the taste. But how often do we really focus on a single sense? A relaxing bath, for example, might involve not just warm water, but also candles, background music, scented oils, a stack of magazines, and maybe something to sip while you soak. Just like that, all five senses are stimulated at once. (Even our downtime is busy!)

The logic goes something like this: If eating is fun, and reading is also fun, then eating while reading is bound to be twice as fun! Not so much, McGowan says. "According to Chinese medicine, one organ, the spleen, is responsible for both thinking and eating," she explains. "So if you're reading a book while having lunch, your body really isn't getting much of a break. In fact, it's the worst thing you can do if you're already feeling exhausted."

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Try this: Don't automatically pile on the extras; enjoy each sensation separately. Take your relaxing bath in peace. Listen to your iPod while lying in bed, focusing on every note. Savor a treat from beginning to end, closing your eyes not just for the first taste, but for each subsequent bite as well.

Do the "Tree"

Yoga is a great way to fine-tune your focus because it requires your total concentration (instructors call it "being in the moment"). "If you're not physically and mentally 'present,' you'll find yourself falling out of balance very easily," explains yoga instructor Adam Marcus, owner of Enso Studio in Media, Pennsylvania. Balance postures are particularly effective. Says Marcus: "These poses, or 'asanas,' are designed to force you to pay close attention to your breathing and your body." Distractions don't stand a chance.

Try this: To restore your mental balance, anytime and anywhere, Marcus suggests doing the tree pose. Here's how: Stand straight but relaxed, palms pressed together at your "heart center" (the middle of your rib cage). "First, take one slow, deep breath to calm your nervous system," he says. "Now it's time to stabilize your body by bringing focus to all of your muscles. Start by engaging the muscles in your right foot, move up your calf and thigh, then on to your pelvis and core (pull your navel in toward your spine), then bring your shoulders back and chin up. Now raise your left foot and place the sole gently against your right ankle, calf, or inner thigh. Keeping your hands at your heart center, hold this pose for five deep, full breaths. Repeat on the other side."

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Embrace the Silence

Sometimes even grown-ups need a time-out. Konchog Norbu, an American Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, believes that simply sitting still in silence confers tremendous mental and physical benefits on those who do it regularly. "It's called 'calm abiding,' and it's the first stage of Buddhist meditation," he explains. It not only strengthens the mind's ability to focus and avoid distractions but also "can slow your heart, lower your blood pressure, and improve your memory."

Try this: Norbu recommends sitting quietly for five to 10 minutes—once in the morning and once in the evening. Concentrate on your breathing and "let the business of your mind go," he instructs. "You should start to notice changes, like a better ability to concentrate, within a couple of weeks."

Consider Your Actions

A. J. Jacobs, best-selling author of The Guinea Pig Diaries , pledged to quit multitasking— cold turkey—for an entire month. In his quest for focus, Jacobs went to extremes: He dismantled his Internet access before sitting down to write, and at one point, literally tied himself to his desk chair. But the thing that really worked, according to Jacobs, was metacognition. "Whenever I noticed my mind wandering— which was pretty much constantly—I'd gently guide my thoughts back."

Try this: One way Jacobs refocused was by describing his actions aloud. "Telling yourself, 'I am walking down the sidewalk,' makes you present," he says. If you're not bold enough to verbalize—Jacobs confesses he got some strange looks—just think about your actions. "Simply acknowledging the moment taught me how to be in the moment," he says.

Keep Careful Track

Sophie Leroy, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, has a slightly different take on distraction. "When we think of multitasking, we think about choosing to do different activities at once, like driving and talking on the phone," she says. "But another form of multitasking occurs when your brain can't focus because it's busy thinking about all the other things you have to do."

This is a particularly common complaint at work. "Time is segmented, with people rushing from a project they're working on, to a meeting, and then back again," Leroy says. "They assume their brain just moves along with them. But if you're working on an assignment until 2:59, and then rush off to a meeting at 3:00, you're going to have a hard time switching gears, not to mention resuming work on the original project when the meeting ends."

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Try this: Imagine that your brain is a computer: If too many windows are open at once, Leroy says, the whole operating system slows down. "So leave a trail of bread crumbs for your brain," she suggests. Before transitioning to a new project, jot down where you're leaving off on the old one—so you know exactly where to pick up when you get back to it. And before you jump back into it, devote a few minutes to recapping what you've just finished. It's simple, but it works.

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