The digital media era has made it more difficult to focus on the task at hand. Many assume multitasking and the constant digital chatter is a desirable part of the new workplace. But Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Brain Health and author of the new book Make Your Brain Smarter, suggests all this digital noise actually is making us dumber, rewiring our brains in a negative way so we’re less effective and less productive. Here are five things she suggests to get more focused and train your brain.
Tip # 1 Stop multi-tasking.
Have you ever missed an exit while driving because you were talking on the phone? That’s no coincidence, says Chapman, who suggests that the idea that multitasking makes you more productive is a myth. “The brain science is clear,” she says. “People who are multitaskers are breaking down their brain, increasing the stress hormone cortisol. When you’re trying to do two tasks at once, every level of performance is lowered. If you do one thing at a time, you increase brainpower and energy. It wasn’t wired to do two things at once. We’re toggling between tasks so we’re using more energy than if we were doing one thing.”
Tip #2 Focus on two critical things per day.
Some people like to create long to-do lists and attack the easiest, quickest items first. The thinking is that is builds momentum and provides a sense of progress. “The problem with that is your best brain time might be first thing in the morning when you’re ticking off those non-essential items,” Chapman says “Save that time, which is your deepest thinking, to do the two things that require the most energy. Don't let yourself be disrupted during that time and you will see so much more advancement in the workplace and home with what you’re accomplishing.”
Tip #3 Control email.
Dealing with email creates a sense of accomplishment and there’s a pleasurable surge of dopamine every time the phone rings or our email pings. Unfortunately, Chapman says, it takes the brain at least 15 minutes to refocus on a task after taking a time out to deal with email. It’s preferable to deal with issues via a quick phone call or in-person conversation rather than a lengthy email exchange. If that’s not possible, at least limit email to three times a day. If that’s not possible, Chapman suggests using the last 10 minutes of every hour on email and focus for the first 50 minutes.
Tip #4 Interval train.
Just as endurance athletes understand the importance of alternating between hard bouts of work and periods of lesser activity or rest, Chapman says it’s possible to interval train the brain. Start by focusing for just 15 minutes on one task. Don't allow anything to distract you during that time frame. Gradually work your way up to 30 minutes and an hour.
Tip #5 Practice the brainpower of none.
Chapman suggests spending time clearing the mind altogether. This isn't about meditation, necessarily, but rather turning off digital distractions in the car, including the radio. Or leaving the music device at home when you go for a run. At work, make it a point to take a walk or get up frequently to stimulate your mind as well as your body. “Stepping away even for a few minutes stops the mind and frees it up to think more deeply,” Chapman says. “We live in an information age, but the key often is to limit the information. You would think that more information is better, but our brains can’t go too deep on multiple things. Fewer choices allow us to think more deeply and ultimately that changes our brains for the better.”