Do you answer emails while on a conference call, or make your to-do list while in a business meeting? You may think multi-tasking is the obvious answer to a jam-packed schedule, but Wellesley, Mass.-based business and wellness coach Margaret Moore, co-author of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life (Harlequin, 2011), says juggling multiple tasks places stress on the brain and negatively effects your job performance.
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"Our brains were designed to focus all of its resources on one task at a time, be it a work project or a personal conversation," says Moore. Rapidly shifting from a conference call to an email to a meeting means these tasks only get a part of the brain’s resources, and can result in sloppy work, making you feel dissatisfied with your accomplishments at the end of the day. "[When we focus on a singular task], our memory works well, we make fewer mistakes and we’re creative -- even brilliant from time to time," says Moore. Using the brain’s organizational software in the way it was designed can help you to feel more focused and productive.
She offers these tips to tap into your brain’s organizational efficiency:
1. Start your day with mind-calming activities. Just as a runner stretches their muscles before a race, your brain needs to warm up as well. Moore suggests engaging in activities that bring your mind to a sense of calm, whether that’s exercise, deep breathing exercises, listening to music, or just letting your mind wander by doing a crossword puzzle or reading the newspaper while you drink your morning coffee.
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2. Schedule "do not disturb" time. Schedule focus periods throughout your day at the times when you’re most creative and strategic. Sustain your attention during those times, focusing all of your energy on the task at hand until you’re ready to move on to the next. Avoid checking your email while you’re working on a task and switch your phone to voicemail to avoid disturbances.
3. Apply the brakes on distractions. "Notice the distraction, take a deep breath and make a conscious choice to stay with the focus or follow the distraction if it’s urgent, rather than allowing [it] to hijack your attention," says Moore.
If technology is your biggest distracter, schedule time for checking emails. "Practice technology-free periods in your life to help tame the cravings for reading the next text or email," says Moore. Streamline your workflow to minimize the distractions you cause yourself, too. Close documents you aren’t actively working on and make a conscious effort to shift your full attention from one task to another.
4. Take frequent brain breaks. "Encourage your mind to wander and move your body to refresh your brain," says Moore. Brain breaks could be every 15 minutes or every hour depending on your emotional and physical state and the difficulty of the task at hand. Take a walk around the block or do some stretches at your desk. Don’t worry that taking breaks will mean you’re sacrificing productivity. "Some of your most creative ideas will come when you de-focus," says Moore.
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5. Fuel your brain. Regular exercise improves attention, memory and the brain’s ability to absorb new information. In addition to exercise, your brain requires certain nutrients to stay at its peak performance. Stock up on lean protein such as eggs and poultry, healthy fats containing omega-3s such as walnuts and fish and complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables on brainstorming days.