How to multi task without losing your mind

Do you suffer from mental overload as a result of juggling too much? Psychologist Susan Quilliam looks at ways to reduce stress and still get everything done

We all do it. Fix supper while talking on the phone. Flick through a magazine or send a text while watching TV. Finish writing the Christmas cards, while thinking about that odd sound the washing machine’s making and whether we should switch mortgages to get a better interest rate.

Multi-tasking has practically become a competitive sport (and every woman juggles five times more tasks than a man), but as our world speeds up it seems we may not be making as much progress as we think. More than that, it’s all highly stressful.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Here are some strategies to help you multi-task without losing your mind.

The problem: brain overload
Yes, most of us know better than to deliberately take on three tasks at once – but the extra track may not be obvious. Background noise, such as the radio, may seem part of our normal environment, but it can still stress us. And the third track may be emotional. Experiencing temporary worry about a family member or annoyance at a partner who refuses to get involved in the Christmas preparations might seem irrelevant to multi-tasking, but it may still be a pressure-inducing distraction.

The solution: Check for third tracks that are distracting you. Lessening an emotional load is harder, but acknowledging it and setting aside time to focus on it lets you “park” it, so reducing anxiety or irritation.

The problem: switching between tasks too often
Changing from one task to another means putting one set of mental strategies on hold, calling up another set, then repeating the process to switch back. This takes seven-tenths of a second – an eternity for brain functions – and, during that time, confusion can set in. Plus, when you return to the first task, you’ll have partly lost what you’ve learned and will need to get up to speed all over again.

The solution: Avoid interruptions (ie switch on the answerphone) until you’re free. If you can’t ignore them (ie the kids are due back from school), think ahead so you’re prepared. Take note of where you’ve left your task; when you return to it, you’ll pick it up more quickly.

The problem: you’re simply multi-tasking too much
Brains, just like the rest of our body parts, need to rest from time to time. In particular, too much multi-tasking conditions the brain to an overexcited state, where it demands higher and higher levels of stimulation just to stay alert.

The solution: The antidote of “flow” is focusing on one single activity, which allows you to relax, enjoy and concentrate on the here and now. It’s reassuring that, typically, after such “mental breaks”, the mind very quickly returns to an unstressed, well-functioning state, which is ready for more multi-tasking!

Find Christmas stressful? Get the November issue of w&h out now for more multi tasking tips.

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