“The shortest way to do many things is to do one thing at a time.”—Samuel Smiles
Devora Zack, author of Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time, was one of the keynote speakers at the annual meeting of the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties in April.1 Her presentation was energetic, interactive, informative, and for me, enlightening. Nurses in our professional role—and other roles we take on in our lives—are always trying to multitask. What a surprise for me to learn that it is impossible to multitask; the brain cannot accommodate engaging in two separate activities simultaneously when each activity requires your full attention to do it well.
This is one piece of information I somehow missed, misunderstood, or just did not connect with in my knowledge base. I use the excuse that neurology has never been my strong point. I understand that what many of us have is not the capacity to do many things at one time but actually the ability to rapidly switch back and forth between multiple tasks, seemingly doing them all simultaneously. Ms. Zack's book is a quick read and includes self-assessments and exercises to help you apply the concepts immediately.
Multitasking: The brain drain
According to Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, renowned cognitive neuroscientist and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, “Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources, and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness.”2
Trying to force the brain to process multiple tasks at the same time causes stress and the release of cortisol, which, if done chronically, can damage the memory area of the brain. This decline is manifested as problems with decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.
The consequences of multitasking are evident all around us and have necessitated legislation in many states to protect individuals and environments. I see people having accidents daily because they are texting while walking and not paying attention to where they are walking, hazards on the sidewalk or street, or people around them.
Authors Zack and Dr. Chapman offer suggestions to decrease your risks for mental decline by adopting single-tasking instead of multitasking, which we know is not humanly possible. Remove chaos and introduce simplicity; do tasks sequentially instead of switching back and forth. Other recommendations include: Give your brain some down time; focus deeply, without distraction; and make a to-do list.2 Take several breaks during the day, if only for a few minutes, to clear your head and think of nothing except how brightly the sun is shining or how refreshing it is to breathe nonrecirculating air outside.
When engaged in a task, give the activity your full attention. Prevent disruptions or distractions by isolating yourself and turning off your cell phone. Schedule separate, brief time periods to take on multiple tasks (for example, answer calls or check e-mails).1 Make a list of things to do one day at a time; include activities you can successfully achieve so the list is erased by day's end. It is also important to maintain brain health by eating a healthy diet, getting adequate rest, and exercising regularly.
Jamesetta Newland, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, FAANP, DPNAP