Find Your Focus: How Our Love of Multitasking Can Harm Us

Distraction causes mistakes and accidents and takes a toll on mental health and quality of life, says Dr. Deepak Prabhakar, MPH, a Henry Ford System psychiatrist. “The problem of distraction is real for us,” he says, “and it’s affecting everyone.”

The answer, he says, isn’t to ditch technology, even if that were possible. Instead, organize your life so you control rather than react. Here are his tips:

Number 1Be prepared.

“Life comes with built-in distractions, and you have to plan for those,” Dr. Prabhakar says. “When you plan, there’s more likelihood of success.” Prioritize your tasks and determine how you’ll handle predictable distractions. If you need to write a work report, for example, devote your full attention to it for an hour and ignore everything else, including your pinging email. When you do this, Dr. Prabhakar says, the email becomes less distracting, and you’ll work more efficiently.

Number 2Review your tech.

Just because “there’s an app for that,” it doesn’t mean it’s good for you. “Everything that gets tracked leads to some kind of reminder,” Dr. Prabhakar says. When your phone, fitness band or smartwatch blinks, pings or vibrates, “that takes you away from whatever you’re doing in the moment. Those reminders are going 24/7,” says Dr. Prabhakar.

For example, instead of going to bed and having a good night’s sleep, Dr. Prabhakar says our focus has turned to measuring a good night’s sleep; how you feel in the morning is one of the best ways to judge your sleep quality. If you track it, Dr. Prabhakar recommends looking at the data only once a week.

Finally, delete apps you don’t need, and disable all but essential notifications, he says, and schedule digital tasks.

Number 3Be a smart multitasker.

Although life has changed dramatically, brain processes haven’t changed much – and the brain’s capacity to multitask is limited, Dr. Prabhakar says. Preparation is key: Make sure your young children have a snack, are occupied and safe before preparing the evening meal. This isn’t the time to try a fancy recipe or listen to an audiobook: “It divides your attention,” says Dr. Prabhakar, “and you are not accomplishing a single task the way it should be.”

Number 4Take a brain break.

“Your brain needs some space to process information,” Dr. Prabhakar says. But if taking a break means streaming a movie, checking Snapchat and texting friends at the same time, the brain has few, if any, opportunities to rest. Try meditation – or even just sitting quietly for a few minutes.

Many people reach for coffee or cigarettes when they need to concentrate, Dr. Prabhakar says, but caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants only make you feel more alert. They do nothing to improve focus or help you understand and process information.

Number 6Live in the now.

Author Annie Dillard famously wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Distraction takes us out of the moment, Dr. Prabhakar says. Instead, aim to be truly present in your life. Don’t join the “phubbing” phenomenon – snubbing the people you’re with to look at your phone. Try turning it off and connecting – for real.

Love your phone too much?

Any behavior that changes your brain’s pleasure signals and offers a “hit” of pleasure can become addictive. Smartphones do this really, really well.

For your brain, a smartphone is no different than a slot machine: It can be rewarding and it can be just as problematic, says Dr. Deepak Prabhakar, a Henry Ford Health System psychiatrist.

Part of the excitement of playing a slot machine is not knowing when or if a payout is coming, or if it will be small or life-changing. The concept is called “variable return reinforcement,” Dr. Prabhakar says. “That works wonders – in a negative way – to get your brain addicted.”

Your phone and its apps, especially social media, have perfected the art of hooking you and bringing you back. “You are always on alert,” Dr. Prabhakar says, “so you must check your phone to see what’s happening.”

He recommends creating a plan to use your phone to check social media once a day. “You regulate and control it,” he says, “rather than it working the other way around.”

Categories: Get Healthy