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This is Your Brain on Multitasking
 

A life-threatening mistake caused by tech-enabled multitasking prompts Harvard doctors to suggest you kick the habit, and learn to focus.

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Multitasking, you've probably already been warned, threatens your productivity. But be thankful that as an entrepreneur it's not also actually threatening someone's life, as it did in an incident detailed in an article on the dangers of rapidly switching your focus from the editor of Harvard Health. The piece tells of a case of a man admitted to hospital for a minor procedure:

One of the man's doctors increased the dose of the blood-thinner warfarin the man was taking. Warfarin helps prevent clots from forming in the bloodstream. The next day, the doctor decided to evaluate whether the man needed warfarin at all, and asked a resident (junior doctor) to temporarily stop the order for daily warfarin.

Using her cell phone, the resident began to make the change via a computerized order entry system. Part way through, she received a text message from a friend about a party. She responded to the text, but forgot to go back and complete the medication order canceling warfarin. As a result, the man kept getting a high dose of warfarin. His blood became so “thin” that, two days later, blood was spontaneously filling the sac around his heart, squeezing it so it couldn't pump properly. He needed open-heart surgery to drain the blood and save his life.

As you're probably not qualified to prescribe prescription medications, you could wonder what this story has to do with you. But as a business owner perhaps it's good shock therapy against the constant, tech-enabled temptation to multitask to hear that the negative effects of the practice are so strong they can cause committed professionals to make critical mistakes even under the mind-sharpening threat of death. As no one's life is at stake, imagine how much you're mucking up because you’re playing around with too many gadgets.

Luckily, Harvard isn't just out to shock you into changing your ways, the doctors are also offering an alternative way to work to help you kick the multitasking habit. The article's author spoke to Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, authors of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, for suggestions and they had this tip:

Instead of trying to do several things at once—and often none of them well—Hammerness and Moore suggest what they call set shifting. This means consciously and completely shifting your attention from one task to the next, and focusing on the task at hand. Giving your full attention to what you are doing will help you do it better, with more creativity and fewer mistakes or missed connections. Set shifting is a sign of brain fitness and agility, say the authors.

If you're curious on exactly how to cultivate this set shifting ability, as well as more details about exactly what goes on in your brain when you multitask (warning: it's not good), check out a lengthy post by Moore on World of Psychology, laying out the steps to tame your impulses to multitask.

Last updated: Jan 13, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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