Doing many things at once has its price. And judging by Eyal Ophir’s research at Stanford, those who are available in several communication channels (such as phone, email, sms, chat channels et c) simultaneously or have many kinds of media turned on (such as streaming music or video, Twitter or having many browser tabs active) while working, are more easily distracted by external factors, more absent-minded and find it more difficult to shift between tasks quickly without losing focus.
The content of today’s tip might seem contradictory since I wrote about the wonders listening to music supposedly will do to your collaborative abilities just a few weeks ago.
All of it, but without the backlash
So, what should we do if we still want to remain very available and continue our media multitasking, but not suffer the negative consequences of doing so?
As is often the case, there is a solution to this as well - or at least something we can do to improve our situation.
An actual break
In a study done by Thomas E Gorman and C Shawn Green, the researchers found that the person who takes an actual break when they are ”on break” suffer fewer negative consequences from multitasking than the one who for instance stayed semi-online during their break. The results were particularly clear in the group of participants who were heavy media multitaskers - these people experienced a disproportionally large positive effect of the down-time away from digital channels.
To really give them a break from the constant flow of information, the researchers asked the participants to count their breaths for ten minutes, and to push a key for every breath and another for every tenth breath. It was therefore more or less impossible to do anything other than breathe and count - meaning, taking a real break from work.
If you, like I, want to try and see how taking a real break when you are ”on a break” anyway will affect you, simply count your breaths the next time you have a break.
If ten minutes feels too long, try five.
If you are not too keen on breathing exercises, then choose some other way to really take a break and shift your attention completely from what you are working on or with. The fewer impressions you allow during this down-time, the greater the effect of the rest (since it is the inflow of impressions and information we want to minimize when resting our minds).
Quick on your feet
If you take actual breaks from your work a few times per day, you will, judging by the study I mentioned, suffer fewer negative consequences due to the constant inflow of information. You will regain focus faster and become more flexible and able to quickly shift between tasks. For all of you out there who either multitask voluntarily or have to since things keep coming at you, it might be worth giving this simple method a try and see if it can help you regain or maintain your composure.
What counts as a break to you?
What kind of breaks do you take? What is the best way you have found to really stop working and rest for a little while? There are many out there, including myself, who need to get better at this so please share your tip in a comment.