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If you find yourself getting distracted during your work day as you try to juggle emails, phone calls, items on your to-do list, as well as all the other interruptions throughout the day, you are not alone.

Recent research is uncovering evidence that regular multitasking may result in negative effects on the brain, such as impairing focus, learning, performance, personal effectiveness and even short-term memory.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month shows that multitasking may harm the working memory of older people significantly more than the memory of their younger counterparts. In fact, trying to accomplish many things at once may be a reason older people lose their train of thought and have trouble regaining their focus. Researchers believe that there may be a correlation between this problem and a society that depends more and more on electronic media and jumping from one screen to another.

From the New York Times:

During the study, subjects were asked to look at a scene, then were interrupted for several seconds by an image of a person’s face. They were asked to identify the person’s gender and approximate age, and then returned to answer questions about the earlier scene. Older subjects found it much harder to disengage from the interruption and reestablish contact with the scene, the researchers found…

“Technology provides so much more of an interference than what we did here,” said the researcher, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco. Indeed, the paper argues that studies like this are becoming increasingly important as aging adults spend more time in a work force with heavy multitasking demands.

Are younger generations more adept at recovering from interruptions and distractions because they were raised in a fast-paced, technology-driven culture, or is this difference based on age? If multitasking is more harmful to older people’s memory, at what age does the deterioration begin? Regardless of your age, it is prudent to examine your habits and try to engage in more purposeful, focused work.

Unplug & Focus for Greater Personal Effectiveness

1. Set a “one screen at a time” rule.

It is difficult to do your most productive work when you are switching from one electronic device to another every few minutes. Commit to one screen at a time– for example, writing a report on your computer or checking your smart phone for emails, not both at once– to avoid unnecessary distractions and keep on track with your personal effectiveness.

2. Make time to read and write.

Sometimes a little peace and quiet is necessary for critical thinking and innovation. Set aside time during your work day where you can close your laptop, shut your door and take out a good old-fashioned book or notebook and pen. Read something that interests you in your field for professional development. Brainstorm ideas for your next breakthrough as an organization. Work through potential solutions to a problem your team has been dealing with.

3. Finish one task before you start another.

Resist the temptation to abandon a half-finished project for something easier or more interesting. Focus on your most important priorities one at a time, not moving on to Task #2 until Task #1 is complete. You will accomplish more this way, and you will allow your brain to concentrate fully on each priority.

Have you noticed multitasking taking a toll on your memory? How do you stay focused in a distracting environment?

Learn more about EDSI’s Increasing Personal Effectiveness course.

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