Our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) might be able to hold a few things at once. But ultimately, it’s still a serial processor: able to work on one thing (and one thing only) at a time.
We talk about the efficiencies of mono-tasking over multi-tasking for exactly that reason: mono-tasking avoids the costs associated with moving our attention around different focus areas, never quite picking-up exactly where we left off. And whilst women might be better at minimising these costs than men, multitasking is still an inefficient use of our resources – for all of us.
So here’s a disarmingly simple brain-friendly trick to help you and your brain stay on task.
- Write a To Do list.
- With one task on it.
- The current task.
It seems a nonsense to have to remind ourselves of what we’re currently doing. But think of all the interruptions and distractions, all the routine stuff, all the unplanned emergencies and urgent requests. All the stuff that doesn’t go on the list, but is there, nonetheless – much (most?) of it from ourselves.
It’s never just one thing competing for our attention.
So try the one-item list idea. I use it all the time and it’s great for gently bringing me back on task just as my attention starts to wander. It keeps me on message without my harsh inner critic berating me. It conserves my thinking energy for the task at hand. It leaves me feeling more in control.
And if a true priority does emerge, I can make a more conscious decision to prioritise that over what I was working on.
So: give it a go. Whether at your desk, peppered by interruptions from phone, email and walk-ups; or at home, with all the distractions that might bring. A One Item To Do List is the most brain-friendly of ways for staying on track.