In today's world, multi-tasking has become de rigeur. We're all trying to juggle as many things at once as we can, because that's what's happening in the larger world. Expectations at work and home have become more complex and demanding, not less. Unfortunately, your brain is designed to focus attention on the task it deems most important, usually the one that it thinks is the most closely related to survival. It prioritizes getting away from saber-tooth tigers over brushing your teeth. Makes sense, right? But somewhere along the line, instead of doing one task and then another, humans started trying to do more than one thing at a time, then two things, and then three things, and more. Nowadays we often try to do ten things at a time, with disastrous results (for example, see any study on talking on the cell phone while driving).
Why Multi-Tasking is Multi-Taxing
The truth is that your brain simply cannot focus on more than one task at a time. When you ask it to do so, it doesn't. It switches off between tasks. So, when you're talking on the phone while driving, you may think you're paying attention to both, but you're not. Your brain may be attending to the driving, but then when the person you're talking to says something that needs an answer, your brain switches its attention back to the conversation and ignores the driving completely. Additionally, there's a lag time as the brain switches between each task.
The more tasks you add, the less efficient your brain is, and the less likely it is to focus on the most important task (which explains why people talking on cell phones get into car crashes). Multitasking also ramps up the energy demands on your brain, leaving you feeling depleted afterwards. This is why it's best to eliminate as many distractions as possible whenever you have a task that requires your full attention. It's also why you shouldn't make consequential decisions when you're in the middle of eight other things. You're likely to pick the wrong answer!
Why Too Much Information Can Lead to Brain-Freeze
Given the glut of information we are all subjected to each day, it's little surprise that scientists are now researching what happens when you have too much information-what is popularly called "analysis-paralysis." Feeling like you have too much information to process has become such a prevalent condition that the Oxford English Dictionary added an entry for "information fatigue" in 2009. It's not a new phenomenon, but what's new is our realization that information overload not only leaves people feeling frustrated and emotionally depleted, it actually causes cognitive impairment. Recent research in the science of decision-making has shown that too much information can lead to people making objectively poorer choices, choices they later regret.
The research has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. It also shows that the incubation of ideas needed for true creativity (incubation that ideally occurs just below your conscious awareness) becomes increasingly difficult when information just keeps pouring in.
Why It's a Numbers Game
Every bit of information presents a three-pronged choice: whether to reply immediately, whether to factor it into an impending decision, or whether to discard it entirely. Your working memory can only hold about four items of information; after that, information deemed worthy of holding onto has to be shuttled to your short-term and perhaps even your long-term memory, which requires a conscious effort. While still accumulating information, your brain begins to struggle with what it should keep for future reference and what it can discard. Ignoring repetitive input and deciphering what is not going to be useful later ties up your cognitive resources-and the more information keeps pouring in, the harder it gets. Let's get specific about the ramifications of information overload.
It's Affecting Your Decisions: We're all being overexposed to an onrush of information, which means our brains are being asked to respond instantly. Your brain tries to keep up-even if it's making bad choices. If your brain is being bombarded, it tends to favor quick over right, causing even the smartest, most educated executives to accept the notion that a quick decision is the best decision.
It's Screwing Up Priorities: Your brain is wired to notice and respond to change, which means incoming emails or text messages put your decision-making brain to work immediately, because your brain usually will assume that the latest news is the most important news. Behavioral economist George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon University calls this the "urgency effect;" paying a lot of attention to the most recent information, and discounting what came earlier. Your brain learns to overvalue immediacy and quantity of thought more than quality of thought.
It's Smothering Your Brain's True Genius: If you are allowing yourself to be besieged by an influx of information, you are more likely to have trouble making the creative leap required for original thought-or to make wise decisions. Your brain needs time to subconsciously integrate new information with existing information and make novel connections or identify hidden patterns. Being bombarded impinges on your ability to think creatively.
Give Your Brain Some Space!
Just thinking about all the thinking that has to be done to process an onslaught of information feels exhausting. Luckily, you can give your brain the breathing space it needs if you:
- Limit the flow of information. Yes, you can turn off your cell phone, your Blackberry, your iPad, your computer, the radio, and, most importantly, your TV.
- Don't have your computer ding every time an email arrives. Check it twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon (or at most only once an hour).
- Manage email. Address those that need immediate attention; File those that don't require immediate attention but include crucial information you'll need later; file those you can sideline; delete everything you don't need to read.
- Set priorities, particularly when you have a project that needs your full attention. When a decision or a project is vital, set everything else aside and allow your brain to bring all its juice to bear on that one project, the one idea.
- Choose your sources carefully. When you have to gather information from a variety of sources, seek out the most reliable sources and disregard the rest.
- Close off the flow of information when you need to be creative and give your brain time to percolate. Do something that doesn't feed into information overload, like taking a walk or listening to a concerto.
- Don't go with a methodical, conscious process of pros and cons (or whatever basis you use) when deluged with complex information. Instead, give your unconscious brain a chance to mull it all over.
- Establish the most important criteria for each decision, and focus on those components rather than every piece of information that has come in. Remember that information should not be ranked by when it arrived.
How To Improve Brain Functioning
To improve decision-making, you can improve the functions of your brain that are related to that task. So, for example, since being able to focus helps you make decisions-because you need to concentrate on the decision and on the facts needed to make the decision-any effort you make to improve your focus, even if you're just focusing on emptying the dishwasher or reading a book, will eventually improve your decision-making skills. Your brain's skills are transferable!
Below is a list of the major brain functions related to decision-making. Ask your lovely brain to review it closely and create a personalized list of ways to bolster its true genius.
- The ability to focus: How well you can drown out distractions and focus on the task at hand affects your ability to absorb information.
- The ability to control your thoughts: How well you can slow down, speed up, or contain the flow of information running through your brain can all affect how well you think.
- The ability to process new information: How well you comprehend new information can affect your decisions.
- The ability to integrate information: How you connect new information to what you already know affects the amount of information available to your thinking process.
- Short-term memory: Your ability to retain new information could affect your decision-making processes, particularly if you have to absorb a lot of information and make decisions quickly.
- Long-term memory: How you think about choices and make decisions can be vastly influenced by painful or happy memories and how much emotional charge is connected to them.
- The ability to develop new skills: Keeping your brain firing on all pistons keeps it supple and makes it easier to learn new skills.
There are, of course, a multitude of things you can do to improve your brain functioning, but the most important things you can do are:
- limit the amount of inconsequential information your brain receives
- selectively feed your brain the reliable information that really matters
- give your brain time and space to integrate information and seek novel connections
- focus on one task at a time
The more you train your brain to focus, and then provide the opportunity to focus, the more it will rise to the occasion. It's up to you to deliver the muscle, to put the ideas and suggestions into practice and work much harder to fully engage, challenge, teach, train, and nourish your brain. As with all things, those who work hardest will receive the best results.
This article was co-written by Teresa Aubele, Ph.D. and Susan Reynolds