Which is worse for your powers of concentration?

Doing several things on technology (email, texting, surfing the web) at once.


Trying to get all of those things done, but after you've had a few puffs of marijuana (medical or not)?

According to a study by Dr. Glenn Wilson, from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, electronic multitasking (ringing telephones, email dings etc.) lowers IQ by ten points--more than double the drop from lighting up a joint, and equal to the loss after missing an entire nights sleep.

So if you live in a state where marijuana is legal, I strongly suggest you take this not as a marching order to pick up the pot, but rather to put down the cell phone--at least while you're doing other things.

A new study from Aalto University based on having the participants watch the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and James Bond movies has shown how multitasking overloads our brains. This includes social media, which the researchers believe, from the brain's point of view, is at its core a multitasking activity.

"We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure different brain areas of our research subjects while they watched short segments of movies," explains Aalto University Associate Professor Iiro Jääskeläinen.

The brain imaging found that shifting rapidly between tasks impedes the areas of the brain responsible for turning bits and pieces into a more cohesive story.

The researchers, who cut the film into 50-second segments to disrupt their continuity, found that certain parts of the participants' brains were higher functioning when the films were viewed in longer, 6.5-minute segments. In short, the brain works better when it focuses on one thing at a time.

That multitasking is not good for our concentration or productivity is well known, but overcoming this neuroscientific nuisance can take some practice, and while technology may be the culprit, it can also be part of the cure. I regularly use several apps including Pomodoro and Forest to carve out highly focused and timed work sessions. These apps are simply structured to encourage and reward you to stick to the schedule.

In addition, I asked Paul Armstrong, author of the new book Disruptive Technologies, out this week from Kogan Page, to weigh in with a few of his best tips for managing multitasking madness. Here's what he had to say:

Lessen the lure of your most loved apps.

"Don't make your favorite apps the first port of call on your cell phone," says Armstrong. Instead he suggests moving them to a new screen on your phone--preferably at the back of the stack.

"The red circles notifying you that you've got a message can become a game of whack-a-mole. You will be less distracted, and more focused, if they are not right in front of you all the time," he says.

Lose one screen.

Stop and right now count how many screens you are using. Armstrong says that while people think that background noises or images help them focus, it is harder to concentrate when being interrupted by different devices.

"Lose one of the screens by putting your phone in a drawer or turning off the iPad," suggests Armstrong. "It will reduce the potential for interruption and trick your brain into feeling more in control--a key for focus."

Create a calendar bubble.

Have you ever set aside time in your schedule to work on an important item and then blew it off when a call or email came in that grabbed your attention away?

Well, of course you have. Armstrong suggests you create a burst-free bubble by scheduling 30 minutes every day to either prioritize your most important to-do's or to work uninterrupted on something essential.

With an ever-increasing reliance on screens, it seems unlikely that the temptation to multitask will magically disappear altogether. However, learning to keep the habit in check is an essential skill for success.

The next time you find yourself doing two (three, four, or five) things at once, put your attention squarely where it belongs--on one thing at a time.