Nodding as if you’re listening to a friend speak while also checking your phone, only to look up and say: Wait, what? Guilty. While multitasking isn’t all bad, it shouldn’t take up the bulk of our day. Multitasking can harm our ability to retain critical information and can ironically make us less productive. Our focus is precious, and if we see it as such, we can better adjust our days to enhance it.
Cue Marc Milstein, Ph.D., author of the new book The Age-Proof Brain: New Strategies to Improve Memory, Protect Immunity, and Fight Off Dementia, who explores how training the brain makes it stronger as we age. At age 40, our brains begin to shrink, which can make it more difficult to focus and feel productive. Actively working on focus throughout your life can make a difference, he writes, and that means slowing down and being more mindful of how we shift from task to task.
“Our brain can trick us into thinking that we’re handling the constant spinning of plates and multitasking, when it’s quite apparent that our focus or our performance has dropped,” he says.
It’s a matter of seconds
The hippocampus, the part of the brain largely associated with memory retention, acts as a waiting room that decides which pieces of information we deem important, Milstein says, who notes that when we multitask, we don’t give our hippocampus the chance to transfer critical information to long-term memory. It takes only about seven to 10 seconds of extra focus to allow us to remember something, he says. No wonder we forget where we just put our keys down if we were also texting a friend at the same time.
“We are telling our brain when we multitask that some things are not worth remembering,” he says. “That extra time [of focus] tells our brain that the information being held in the hippocampus is worthwhile.”
To signal to our brains that something is worthwhile, we can take a few more seconds—literally—to think about it, by deepening our focus on a specific task and putting the phone down in the process.
Your afternoon blues are telling you something
The midday slump or need for a 3 p.m. pick-me-up coffee alerts us that exhaustion has hit. Instead of plowing through every single undone task at the same time, it’s more effective to prioritize focusing on one thing at a time.
“Your focus is kind of like your cell phone battery. It drains throughout the day,” Milstein says. “There are certain times of the day where we’re going to be less focused, where productivity is going to slip.”
To combat the exhaustion, simply set a schedule where you oscillate between pure focused time and break time. This mimics the decades-old pomodoro time-management technique. Your brain is able to take a break and then refocus again.
The method typically works in 25-minute intervals followed by short breaks; that way you know how much time you have to dedicate to a task and when you can ease up. When it’s time for that focused interval, put your phone down and limit the distractions of social media and other tempting social butterflies. Take those breaks seriously and don’t work, even on mindless tasks.
“People are surprised how much more they remember when they just slow down a bit in a world where we are forced to multitask and move to the next,” he says.
Taking breaks to breathe, close your eyes, and simply pause throughout the day can help your memory. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, the director of decision making, can strengthen like a muscle at the gym when we routinely practice mindfulness, improving our ability to be in the present moment.
The key to protecting the brain isn’t eliminating multitasking. It’s when we take on too many tasks all the time and all at once that chronically elevates cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and damages our brains as we age.
“Multitasking doesn’t have to be the enemy,” Milstein says. “It’s just that we spend too much of the day or all of the day doing it, [and] it can be very wearing and draining.”
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