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Multitasking Can Worsen Your Memory?

As I sat there, he looked around the room and said something that made me never want to multi-task again. It was about 5 years ago when I signed up for a session by Guinness Record Holder and Global Keynote Speaker - Nishant Kasibhatla. And as we all sat there waiting to hear some magical tricks and walk out feeling like thug-life memes, the Grandmaster of Memory gave us one tip to boosting brain power and getting great memory - stop multi-tasking.

Now, for someone like me who used to pride them self in multi-tasking in a world where job applications require it, where mothers are praised for it, where we snigger and laugh at those who can’t multi-task, it felt like a curve-ball. Hang on, i came here to learn about boosting memory - what’s multitasking got to do ... got to do with it?

Turns out - a lot.

Before I explain, do you know where the word multitasking comes from? It originated in the 1960s and was used to describe a function where computers were able to run multiple sets of instructions at the same time. The term Multi-tasking was not coined for people, but for machines, but soon it found its way into our vocabulary.

You might say, "But Shubh we multi-task all the time," and I'll say, "Yeah, you’re right we do." In fact I'm doing it right now - I'm reading my notes and recording this, while praying that my neighbours don’t start drilling.

And yes, not all multi-tasking is bad. You can listen to your favourite music while running, chat and brisk-walk with your friend, chew gum while watching TV. These are alright, in fact they may even make you enjoy the activity even more. But the key is that these can be done almost intuitively, as they do not compete for the same cognitive functions at the same time.

But when you’re replying to a text from your partner, while your friend is telling you about a problem at work, you’re trying to use the same brain functions that require sustained attention. These functions are best suited to do one thing at a time, but here you are trying to do multiple things - you’re listening to your friend’s story while also reading and hopefully logically responding to your partner’s message.

According to a Stanford Memory Lab study, those who multi-tasked heavily, significantly under-performed on tasks that required memory and sustained attention, as compared to light multitaskers. So, if you’re trying to cook multiple dishes at once, or reply to emails while listening to a podcast, your brain is over-working the same functions and competing against itself to pay attention to the things all at once.

This slows the brain's processing, increases retention of inaccurate information, causes us to make more mistakes, and of course interferes with our long-term memory. If you’re driving and texting, it places you at a higher risk of an accident. So it’s not worth it.

I want you to picture this. You’re in a class of 40 students and each of them come up to you one by one to take a piece of candy. It’s a smooth and systematic process. Now, imagine that you’re holding onto the candy container and all 40 kids rush and start grabbing it all. When done, you’re not going to be able to remember who took what, or how many. That’s kind of like multitasking does.

One of the biggest reasons we practice this is to be more productive, wanna get more done. But researchers estimate you lose up to 40% of your productivity if you multitask! So it defeats the purpose.

Some of you on Instagram may have seen that i was reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, and it’s a great book, i highly recommend it. And you responded with your own thoughts around it. Divnoor said she always prefers to not multitask but when situations demand it, then it leaves you with no choice. Mahak echoing similar sentiments saying - “When there’s many things to do in a short span of time, I'll multi-task, otherwise focusing on one thing is best.”

Raynor Beins from the Good Vibes podcast made an excellent point saying, “I believe we’ll only multitask on things that don’t fully interest us. If you’re doing something you love, you don’t want anything else or anyone disturbing you.”

That actually resonated with me and I think if you think about it as well, when you’re really enjoying something, you can sit with it for hours. Speaking about quality versus completion, Budha wrote in, if the task requires high quality output, then it needs one-pointed focus and vice-versa. Lastly, Kat said, "Multitasking is overrated!" and Styles - "It’s impossible!

Impossible indeed which is probably why many successful or prominent figures refuse to do it! Jack Ma had said, “If there are nine rabbits on the ground and you want to catch one, just focus on one.”

So how can we catch that rabbit? As usual, I'm not gonna leave you hanging - I'll show you the problem and of course share some solutions.Here’s three ways how you can minimise multitasking and be less distracted.

1) Further Your Phone

Phones are a double-edged sword - we need them but so distracting! And with the whole work from home, it's gotten worse. The more your phone is in your line of vision and easy reach, the more you reach for it. If I don’t want to be distracted, I put my phone behind me nearer my bed. So out of sight, out of mind. If it rings, I'll answer it but I don’t want to take the effort to turn around, get out of my chair and grab my phone to check messages or social media. I also try to avoid using messaging apps on my desktop if I'm working on something that requires concentration. The more the number of actions and steps required to get distracted, the less motivated you are to switch tasks.

2) Use the Pomodoro Technique

Meaning “tomato” in Italian and invented in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the technique asks you to focus on a single task for 25 minutes. When the timer rings, take a 5 minute break and get back to another pomodoro. After four tomatoes, take a 15-30 min break. This is said to work because it avoid distractions and gives you clarity about where your time is going. If you’re a creative, this may give you the nudge to get started and you may end up getting into the zone and rhythm you need to keep going.

3) Ask Yourself, “Can This Wait?”

I had gotten into the habit of eating my breakfast while checking and replying to my emails. One day, I was way too hungry and figured I'd just sit down and eat first. Halfway through my meal, I realised how peaceful it was and how long it had been since I simply sat down and enjoyed the taste and flavours of my breakfast. And actually enjoyed the meal. Because I'd been so busy or feeding myself the illusion that I had to be busy, I was missing out on little daily joys because I wasn’t savouring them anymore. So now, anytime i feel i have multiple things to do, i hit a pause and ask, “Can this wait?” Usually I find that it can.

Even though it’s been years since I walked out of that session with the Grandmaster of Memory, I tried that one tip to stop multi-tasking and it has made a big positive difference. AND ... I still remember it!

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