As you read this article, what else are you doing? Perhaps you’re checking your emails, talking on the phone or watching TV. In any case, it’s likely your attention isn’t focused solely on this page.

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New research has found seven out of 10 Australian adults are unable to concentrate on one task for more than half an hour at a time – less than the length of an average school period – while over half confessed to being distracted by other thoughts and losing concentration within just 15 minutes of starting a task.

Growing impatience

Healthy mind expert and author of The Clear Mind Guide, Martina Sheehan, says the findings are indicative of the busyness of the work environment and the increasingly fast pace of technology.

“With email and texting, you don’t have to wait for a response for too long, so there’s not as long between issues arising in front of you,” she says. “So people are jumping between more issues more often than they were previously.”

This tendency to constantly switch between tasks has been likened to the workings of your trusty PC. Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to simultaneously do as many things as possible, as quickly as possible.

And it’s something we’re terribly proud of. Surely if we can do more than one thing at once, our productivity will increase? The word multitasking appears in the skills sections of resumes and peppers the conversations of working mothers – it’s the buzzword of our busy lives.

The consumption of media – from iPhones to email, pay TV and the internet – has exploded and fuelled the growth of the multitasking phenomenon. The pull of the virtual envelope on your computer screen is often enough to distract you from even the most complex task, just as the internet entices you to constantly switch your attention from one webpage to the next.

The female mind

Anecdotal evidence suggests women are more prone to multitasking. Sheehan believes this is due to a combination of genetic and societal factors.

“With the slightly different wiring of male and female brains, and what our fundamental roles have been over history, there is are slight physical and chemical differences in male and female brains,” she says.

“I also believe it’s a societal label – if we believe we’re meant to be good at something we will try to do it. And many women’s lives are set up to have more things asking for our attention, so we’re more likely to multitask than men.”

The science is on side too, with researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK finding women to be the superior multitaskers.

Professor Keith Laws, who headed the research, says the findings show that, “Women are better at being able to stand back and reflect for a moment while they are juggling other things.”

The trouble with multitasking

Yet while many women say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing on the task at hand and shutting out irrelevant information, and they experience more stress, scientists say.

Researchers at Stanford University in the US surveyed two groups of people – those who routinely consumed multiple media and those who didn’t – and in a series of three classic psychology tests for attention and memory found that ‘low multitaskers’ consistently outperformed ‘high multitaskers’.

“When we become quite proficient at having a busy mind and switching between a lot of tasks at once, it becomes harder to stay focused on just one thing because it becomes quite uncomfortable,” Sheehan says.

“However, studies show people who jump between tasks are less productive than people who don’t. People who finish one thing before moving onto the next are 1.5 times more efficient.”

The trouble with multitasking is that our brains waste time switching from task to task, meaning they’re working less efficiently. Some scientists refer to the problem as ‘response selection bottleneck’, where the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once.

Using your mobile phone while driving is a classic example of how multitasking can lead to disaster. And in the business world, a growing multitasking office culture is leading to concerns about time management and productivity among workers.

In and out of the office, a fragmented media environment means the pull of multitasking is stronger than ever. ‘Media multitasking’ – the simultaneous use of several different media, such as TV, internet, video games and text messaging – is clearly on the rise, according to a 2006 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, with 26 per cent of media time spent multitasking. 

And this pull can become addictive. Sheehan says our minds become accustomed to thinking in a particular way, regardless of whether it’s good for us.

“Our brains are just like any other muscle,” she says. “If we lift a weight with a particular muscle in our arm, that muscle gets stronger, and if we don’t, it will get weaker – the brain is very much the same.

“If we’ve been practising something, the brain becomes wired for it and efficient at it. If we’re not training it for concentration it finds it quite difficult, so it becomes unfit. The brain gets used to being busy and when you try to concentrate, anything is a distraction and your attention will wander.”

A busy mind can also lead to serious health conditions, such as increased stress levels (multitasking can replicate feelings of stressful situations), lack of sleep and poor quality relationships, as our brains become too cluttered to notice what’s happening around us.

An attentive mind

But just as we can teach our minds to be busy, so too can we teach them to focus on one task at a time. Sheehan advocates the concept of ‘safe switching’.

“When we switch between tasks, the reason we become unproductive is we lose some of the data our brain has been selecting on the first task when we switch to the second,” she says.

“So when we come to the first one we’ve lost some data so have to repeat it. When you know you’re going to switch tasks, consciously set the first one aside in your mind, take a deep breath and clear the mind before turning your attention to the second one, rather than just jumping straight from one to the other.”

Banning the word busy is also a surefire way to clear your mind, Sheehan says.

“What we give attention to grows,” she says. “Put attention on what you’re trying to create. So ban the word busy and introduce words like clear, focused and calm, because that will make you give more attention to those feelings.”

So take a moment to finish reading this article, set it aside in your mind and then move on to your next task. Train your brain to work in a logical way and you’ll soon feel less stressed and become more productive. As the old saying goes, ‘one thing at a time’.