[In case you missed the others...Part One: Brain research 101, Part Two: How such brain research should help us organize our homes, Part Three: Organizing our social connections]
To Multitask or To Focus?
Focus! It takes less energy to focus than to jump all over the place trying to get a lot of things done. If you organize your time in a way that allows you to truly focus, you’re not only going to get more done but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to shift from one thing to another. More than that, Levitin notes, multitasking is bad for innovation, problem solving, and creativity. Our brain is easily hijacked, or interrupted, by novelty. “The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects” and we get distracted rather than reap the rewards of sustained effort and attention. Remember...the mere awareness of an unread email, even if you don’t read it, can reduce your effectual IQ by 10 points (p.170). One thing that distinguishes experts from novices is that experts know what to pay attention to and what to ignore (p.177). Moms are pros at distinguishing the types of cries and voices our children use and we’d all do better to improve this skill.
Bottom Line: Stay focused. If you have chores to do, group similar chores together like pay the bills rather than decide which new car to buy too. If you’re cleaning the living room, don’t get sidetracked by the closet that needs sorting. If we can organize our mental resources efficiently so we can focus on similar tasks at a time, we will get more done and finish with more energy (p.176).
Take language learning, for example. If you work hard on the language for an hour or so during the day, giving it your best focus, energy, and emotion, it will be ripe for your brain to replay and elaborate on in your sleep (p.186). REM and NREM sleep gets complicated scientifically, but basically the first two hours of NREM sleep and the last 90 minutes of REM sleep in the morning are most critical, which is why sleep deprivation leads to memory loss when that 90 minutes is interrupted (p.187). And no, you can’t make up for lost sleep. When it’s gone, it’s gone and that Sunday nap isn’t going to bring it back. However, 5-10 minute power naps can yield significant cognitive enhancement, improved memory, and increased productivity (p.193). Just don’t nap longer than 45 minutes or it’s counterproductive.
Bottom Line: Sleep is critical for cellular housekeeping, peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation (p.189), so we ought to do a better job at making sure we’re getting enough. Even a mild loss of sleep or altering of our sleep pattern by just one hour can “produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward” (p.189). The good news is that for some people who have a hard time sleeping through the night, a bimodal sleep pattern could work too (e.g. sleep for 4 hours, up for 2, sleep for 4 more). The key factor is consistency. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning.
A side note on jet lag: Our body’s circadian rhythm has a hard time shifting by external factors, causing the clumsiness, fuzzy thinking, GI problems, poor decision-making, and sleepiness associated with jet lag (p.194) -- and it gets harder as we age. Levitin gives these tips (p. 195): If you’re westbound, keep the overhead reading lamp on, exercise lightly when you reach your destination by taking a walk in the sun, delaying your body’s melatonin production. If you’re heading eastbound, wear eye shades to cover your eyes two hours before sunset in your destination city. Melatonin supplements, by the way, are not recommended, because by bedtime your body has already produced as much melatonin as it can use.
We all suffer with the urge to put off what we ought to do right now. Procrastination is a lack of self-regulation, planning, or impulse control – or all three (p.195). Levitin suggests one simple tip: do the most unpleasant task of your day first thing while gumption is high, because willpower depletes as the day progresses. Another idea: head outside! Being outside in natural settings (parks, forests, mountains, beach) rather than urban environments replenishes our brain and has been shown to reduce the tendency to procrastinate (p.195).
I had no idea there was so much science behind procrastination (even an equation that quantifies the likelihood you’ll procrastinate!) and differing types of procrastinators: such as a) do you like to do restful things like play a game or watch TV when you’re putting-things-off or b) still do something but choose a fun task that yields immediate results rather than slowly move forward on a long-term project? Do you suffer from the chronic inability to finish projects you start (which technically isn’t procrastination but a lack of finishing skills, an entirely different problem) (p.198-199)? Successful people see setbacks and failure as opportunities to gain more knowledge that will help them accomplish the goal (p.200)
Bottom Line: Do your most unpleasant task of the day first, get outside in nature as often as possible, and learn from your setbacks.
Flow is quite the buzzword and I can see why: it’s a blissful state to be in. It’s that state, for us or our children, where we are involved in a creative pursuit we enjoy, we lose track of time, forget to eat, and are not easily distracted. Scientifically, when we experience flow, two parts of the brain deactivate: the part responsible for self-criticism and our fear center. Not surprisingly, when we’re in this state we produce our best work (p.203).
From a neurological standpoint, “creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural nodes that might not otherwise be made” (p.217).
Bottom Line: Manage our time effectively to allow more creative time. Relax and let the brain take over to help us solve complex problems. Experience true flow and engagement often and provide opportunities for your children to experience that also (and try not to interrupt them when they do). We’ll be happier and performance will be strong (p.206).
What to do? Trick our brain and establish systems to stick to the task at hand. For me, this means deleting Facebook from my phone (except when I’m traveling and choose to deliberately share and browse) and instead checking it on the computer at a consistent time each week, checking email at specified times during the day, and going offline when I’m working on a task so I’m not distracted by everything else. For you, it might be different things, but analyze your distractions and set up your environment accordingly. Levitin suggests that for such external distractions, you should set aside a particular place that allows you to focus and to train your mind to think that whatever you’re working on right now is the most important thing you could possibly be doing (p.210).
Brain-clearing (such as externalizing our environment so we don’t have to remember so much) helps us minimize internal distractions. If you have a difficult task to face, it needs at least 50 minutes or more because it takes that time for your brain to let go of other things and get into a focused state (p. 210). Write down as much as you can so you don’t have to spend cognitive energy remembering. Set up a time of day to deal with tasks that will take 5-minutes or less and knock a few of those out, like that unpleasant phone call or email. If you schedule a block of time, then all these little tasks won’t interfere during your focused time.
Bottom Line: Stick to the task at hand and structure your environment and brain to not get distracted. Get your phone-checking under control and don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth. And please, commit to never, ever, ever use/touch/glance at your phone while driving! Keep it in the back seat or trunk if you have to or put it on airplane mode -- the risks just aren't worth it.
Some of my favorite tools are:
- Evernote (online, searchable note-taking from any device)
- ToDoist (project lists and tasks)
- Inbox by Google (snooze an email till I need the info again, filters, bundles, and overall email declutter. Using this has completely changed the way I interact with email.)
- Unroll.me (easy way to unsubscribe and manage newsletters, subscriptions, etc. Gives me a quick daily glance at all the promo emails I want to see but don't want cluttering up my inbox)
- Sortd (merges emails, tasks, and notes into lists)
- Fanstastical (lets me interact with my Google Calendar from my Apple Watch) but I've also used CalenGoo for awhile as my Google Cal tool of choice.
Bottom Line: pick your tool(s) and clear your brain. On the days I’ve really taken this to heart and scheduled projects and tasks into my day, in addition to just events and places we need to be, I’ve been incredibly productive.
Once we reach thirty (yes, 30!) our reaction time, cognitive processing speed, and metabolic rate slow down, along with our neural transmission speed (p.215). The way we choose to spend our time changes too. Young people are driven by novelty and are motivated to learn and experience new things. In our teens and twenties we strive to learn as much about ourselves as we can, what makes us tick, and how we want to spend our time. By the time we approach ouf fifties and sixties we place a higher priority on actually doing the things we know and like rather than discovering new things (p.216). Older people have generally found what they like, who they like, and spend their time doing those things with those people. Our perception of time passing and how much time we think we have left influences our decisions as well.
One of the ways we’ve always heard to stave off the effects of aging, and is backed by brain research, is to stay mentally active. Perform tasks you’ve never done before (p.217). Stretch yourself. We can’t just do this when we’re old -- our brain needs a lifetime pattern of mental activity and learning. We need social interaction. We need creativity to help us reset our brain, stop time, contemplate, think outside linear lines, and reimagine our relationship to the world (p.217).
Bottom Line: Stay active, make friends, do the things you enjoy but still try new things, and organize your brain and your time to leave time for creativity. Stretch yourself. Live.
Levitin, Daniel J. 2014. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York, NY: Plume.