At one point or another, our work environment has forced us to multitask. We have to take on different functions and wear different hats. Multitasking is actually counterproductive, and this is what Heidi Hanna has been teaching for the last ten years. She says that we only have a limited amount of brain power at any given time. Splitting that up between different tasks decreases how much we have. Different sources competing for your time and energy unnecessarily stress the brain, because it’s not designed to handle multiple things. The problem with doing multiple things at the same time is we don’t do each of them well, so the performance and productivity levels go down. Heidi explains we have to learn how to differentiate multiple priorities from multitasking. The key is building a support of rituals that are going to help us to do just one thing at a time in the moment when we’re feeling the pressure. The change process starts to happen when you train your brain like a muscle and strengthen your ability to single task. We are more successful if we do one thing at a time.
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From Multitasking To Single-Tasking with Heidi Hanna
There are people out there who spend some time multitasking. I know that I never do, but maybe there are some other people. In your book, you said that there are studies that show that multitasking is counterproductive and not only creates a decline in our performance, but also unnecessarily stresses the brain.
It always surprises me that this is still a topic because I remember studying this and teaching this. I’ve been teaching this for the last ten years and more and more studies keep coming out.I kept thinking, “People know this by now. I don’t want to keep preaching the same things,” but it never fails. We always go back to this conversation about multitasking because people feel like it’s their only option. People feel like their work environment is forcing them to multitask. What I want people to understand is that we do have multiple priorities and that’s very different from multitasking. Yes, there are multiple things going on throughout the day and we have to take on a lot of different functions and wear different hats. The important thing is that when we do each task, we are fully engaged in that task.
What so often happens is that we start feeling the pressure, the stress to get more done in less time and so we shift out of energy focus and into time focus.Time focus tells us, “If I do two things at once, it’s better than doing one.” In fact, there’s a commercial out about that now that I show in my presentation that always makes me laugh. The problem with doing two things is that we don’t do either of them well and there are some very clear studies that show that performance and productivity levels go down. We only have a limited amount of brain power at any given time. In fact, you can actually measure that. I think it’shertz or something, but there’s a number.When we’re trying to split that up between different tasks, obviously that decreases how much we have.
We also have a limited amount of what we call critical real estate.The actual areas of the brain that can be working can only work on one thing at a time.You can see that in brain scans now. It’s bringing more light to this topic that,”We are looking inside the brain and seeing this doesn’t work so well for us.” The piece of it that I always try to focus on is regardless of productivity, you are unnecessarily stressing the brain because the brain is not designed to handle multiple things. Going back again, I always try to go back and think, “I know what Heidi thinks, but what does this brain thinking?”It is very primitive. If I were in a survival situation and I had to do multiple things at once and I was under a time deadline, that’s a threat to my survival. Those stress hormones go up hoping to support me in that in case there’s a need to fight or flight or freeze or whatever that stress response might be, but I’m sitting at my desk typing on a computer with all of those hormones flooding my system.
That’s becoming toxic. It causes an inflammatory response throughout the body and it also interferes with communication channels in the brain. You can see very clearly when people are under stress that the core of the brain or the amygdala center, the stress center is fired up and it actually interferes with communication to the logical, thoughtful part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Now, you can see very clearly what the problem is, what’s getting in the way. All of these different sources competing for your time and energy cause an increase in stress, which as a result increases that toxic cortisol to the brain.Cortisol can kill brain cells on contact. It is by far the worst thing for you from a long-term perspective for your health and aging and all those sorts of things. I could go on and on and on about multitasking.The challenge is, the story we tell ourselves that says, “I need to modify tasks. I need to get more done in less time,” even when our heart is believing that we will be more successful if we do one thing at a time.
The key is building in supportive rituals that are going to help us because in the moment, when we’re feeling the pressure, we’re going to slip back into autopilot, which is going to say, “Do more, do more, do more.”We need those rituals that are going to support us to do one thing at a time. Even if it’s every now and then, that’s the thing, training the brain like a muscle. If we can strengthen our ability to single task, the more that we do that, the more comfortable we get with that, the more multitasking is actually going to feel uncomfortable and that’s how the change process starts to happen.
In this case, practice makes perfection or perfect?
In this case, practice makes focus. It gives us a chance to actually rewire how our brain operates. That’s the exciting thing about brain science and neuroplasticity is that we may have done something a certain way our whole entire life, but if we give our brain the right training, in this case, if we train it to focus on one thing at a time and allow it the right recovery time to recover and repair from that, it will rebuild new pathways that will pull us in the right direction.
If we take that muscle example again, is that if we don’t put any focus there and we just go to the gym once, how effective is that for getting people fit to go once? “I went. I should be fine now.” I know there are a lot of people who think that when they join a gym membership in the beginning of the year.They go once and that’s good enough, but it’s that repetitive, getting a clear process together of consistently practicing it and also having that recovery in between. The most important thing is to support yourself with an environment that supports you in achieving that.
It might be a shocker for some of you out there, maybe not for those of you who know me, but I struggle with this deep-seated belief that says, “You’re going to get more done if you multitask.” I find that I need to set myself up with different structures around myself, whether it’s setting a timer and setting objectives before I sit down.What am I going to achieve in this 50-minute slot? What are my outcomes so that I’m very clearly focused on it and that helps me to eliminate everything else and also shut down the email and the text and all that other stuff that can possibly be distractions. It’s that supportive environment that I create,that helps me to continue to do that. It starts and then builds into a ritual if you’ve got the right tools and support around you.
The more basic steps of balancing brain chemistry, again, is that when we do that, when we do our deep breathing practice, our meditation practice, we’re building a more resilient system so that we can resist the temptation to multitask more effectively. It’s not just what we do around that timeframe that’s so important. As you mentioned, setting the right environment, that’s critical. We need to do that, but we also need to make sure that our brain isn’t all jacked up in stress hormones to start with, which is going to cause us to slide back into that by taking those breaks and setting them into your schedule and recognizing them as a priority. I’ve started to tell myself, my newest mantra is meditation is mandatory because for me, starting the morning with twenty minutes of breathing and ending my day that way and transitioning, I’m a totally different person. I used to recognize that about going to the gym, but now I recognize I need to do the same thing for my brain and I make better choices throughout the day. It’s not just the benefit that you get in that moment of practice, but the resilience that you build by doing that over time.
About Heidi Hanna
As an experienced speaker, Dr. Heidi Hanna has been featured at many national and global conferences, including the Fortune Magazine Most Powerful Women in Business Summit, ESPN Women’s Leadership Summit, and the Million Dollar Round Table. She is founder and Chief Energy Officer of Synergy, a consulting company providing brain-based health and performance programs for organizations, the Executive Director of the American Institute of Stress, and a frequent lecturer at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona.
Dr. Hanna’s publications include the NY Times bestseller The SHARP Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance (Wiley, Feb 2013), Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress (Wiley, Jan 2014) and Recharge: 5 Shifts to Energize Your Life (Synergy, 2015).