At some point in high school, I decided to learn how to juggle. I don’t recall the catalyst for this impulse, but I grabbed three tennis balls from the garage and a short how-to book from the library. I spent weeks practicing, standing over my bed so the errant balls wouldn’t fly all over the room. I started by tossing a single ball into the air over and over. I had to learn how to toss it to the same spot in the air (same height and distance from my body) consistently before adding in the second ball. I can still remember the rush I felt the first time I successfully completed a three ball cascade sequence.
Juggling has been around a long time. A wall painting found in an Egyptian tomb suggests the ancient Egyptians placed a great deal of significance on the act. Warriors from China once practiced juggling as a way to showcase their agility and intimidate enemies. By the 20th century, juggling had come a form of entertainment, though the spinning chainsaws and flaming hoops used by some performers still add a sense of danger.
While physical juggling may not be as impressive as it used to be, mental juggling is still seen as a valuable trait. People who can multitask are thought to have above-average intelligence due to their ability to manage several important tasks at once. We even use juggling terminology to reference the many projects we often have in play at any given time. “Keeping multiple balls in the air” at the same time makes us feel powerful and more competent.
But recent studies suggest that multitasking actually has a negative effect on productivity. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist from MIT, says that multi-tasking is simply switching from task to another very rapidly. When we interrupt one task to complete another, such as checking an email or sending a text message, our brains release dopamine. This makes us feel good and we associate it with completing the small task. The more we interrupt significant tasks to knock out smaller ones, the more dopamine we release and the better we feel.[Tweet “Multitasking can drop your IQ by 10 points or more.”]
Miller says this cycle is actually very damaging. Multitasking reduces our efficiency by making it harder for us to organize our thoughts. One study at the University of London indicates that our IQ actually drops by 10 points or more while multitasking. It also boosts the production of the stress hormone cortisol, making us feel tense and worn out by the end of the day.
Perhaps it’s time to give ourselves a break and let go of multitasking. By allowing our brains to concentrate on a single meaningful task when necessary, we can lower stress, improve IQ, and produce better work. It makes sense to me. Here are three steps for breaking the mental juggling act:
- Track your energy level throughout the day. Determine the time blocks that suit certain types of work best. There are times when your brain is better prepared for individual creative tasks such as writing, and other times when you’re better able to work as part of a team. During some parts of the day, you can be a significant contributor to strategic discussions, while others are best used for completing less intensive tasks. Knowing how your energy ebbs and flows throughout the day allows you to anticipate the kind of work you are best able to perform.
- Schedule tasks to take advantage of your natural energy cycle. Armed with an understanding of your own daily rhythm, take control of your work by scheduling tasks when you are best prepared to tackle them. If the creative juices are flowing early in the morning, use that time to write, dream, and plan. If energy drops in the late afternoon, anticipate focusing on low-energy tasks during that time.
- Minimize distractions. Make a conscious effort to avoid multitasking. Turn off email notifications and cell phone alerts during those times when you need to concentrate. Use your calendar to block off time periods you need to protect so others can’t steal that productivity.
I have to admit, I am really bad about multitasking. Just writing this article took longer than expected because of my tendency to check email, respond to texts, and chase other, random thoughts that pop into my head. I’m going to make a concerted effort to improve my concentration on single tasks. I may even take up juggling again. That’s a great way to train the brain. If you choose to join me, this weekend might be a good time to start. Saturday is World Juggling Day.
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