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No multi magic

Doing too many things at the same time — multitasking — actually reduces working memory, a new Stanford study has found.
We don’t multitask. Our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth.
We don’t multitask. Our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth.

Sujata Mukherjee   |   Published 23.01.19, 07:42 AM

Nowadays, it is difficult to concentrate on a single job. There is always that phone call to attend, WhatsApp message to check or email to answer. Not to forget, the new assignments that keep appearing one after the other.

You have to finish a lot of work in a short time, be it at home or the workplace. And anyone who has tried to get many things done at the same time will understand just how stressful multitasking is.


In fact, “We don’t multitask. We task switch. The word ‘multitasking’ implies that you can do two or more things at once, but in reality our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth,” says Anthony Wagner, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory in the US.

A recent study by him and Melina Uncapher of the University of California, San Francisco, US, found that multitaskers do not perform well on memory tasks or on tasks that need sustained attention.

“It strikes me as pretty clear that there is a negative relationship between media multitasking and memory performance — that high media multitasking is associated with poor performance on cognitive memory tasks,” says Wagner.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid multitasking these days. There are, however, certain steps you can take to help your brain function efficiently.

Talk to a dietician and get a personalised diet chart made, based on the sort of work you do. There’s a thumb rule to figure out your ideal weight: measure your height in centimetres and subtract 100 from it. Now multiply this number (weight) with 300 to get a rough idea of how many calories you need a day. Plan you diet such that you get all these calories from nutritious food while avoiding food loaded with empty calories (such as French fries, cola or samosas). Include these food items in your diet to protect your brain:

  • 2-3 cups of green tea without sugar or milk every day
  • 2-3 types of fresh fruits. Try to have a different fruit every other day for a larger variety of nutrients and fibres
  • Two-three dry fruits, such as almonds, walnuts and raisins every day
  • Oily fish, at least twice a week
  • Lots of fresh vegetables, beans and leafy greens
  • Half a glass of red wine, three to four times a week
  • A piece of dark chocolate

Women require certain specific vitamins, minerals and oxidants after they cross 35. If your food is deficient in these, your brain may suffer.

To cut down stress, increase fitness and keep the brain going, do cardio vascular exercise (for instance, walking, jogging, swimming or cycling) at least five days a week for 30 minutes a day. Training with light weights is also beneficial. If you have a lot of stress, do deep breathing, meditation and yoga.

You need adequate sleep for the brain to function properly because the grey cells process the information collected throughout the day while you sleep peacefully. Memory is reconsolidated and the useless bits are discarded. You learn to focus properly after a good night’s sleep. If you can’t sleep properly, you need counselling. If necessary, see a doctor. Don’t take sleeping pills on your own.

Keep at least an hour aside to think over your day. Analyse which aspects of your lifestyle are working out, where you are going wrong and how you can correct them. Ask yourself whether you are going in the right direction or you need to make a course correction. If you have been working 24/7, 5-6 days a week, take time out to think if it’s absolutely essential. Such work often leads you to nowhere. The quality of work suffers and the stress builds up. Think whether you need a put the brakes on your high-speed life. Talk to a close friend or to a counsellor.

“Many of us have felt like our technology and media are controlling us — that email chime or text tone demands our attention. But we can control that by adopting approaches that minimise habitual multitasking; we can decide to be more thoughtful and reflective users of media,” says Wagner.

Whatever you do, do not multitask while working on an important project.

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