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Whether we call ourselves jugglers or multitaskers, the more we manage to do at once, the more we congratulate ourselves.
"Multitasking" was a phrase first minted (in Silicon Valley) to describe computers that could run more than one program at a time. But in the 21st century, we've all become human multitaskers.
And, no question, women are better at it than men. Studies have shown that women use both hemispheres of the brain – while men tend to use one, so they're more "compartmentalised", tending to focus on one thing at a time.
However, research suggests that multitasking might be bad for our memories and our wellbeing. The stress of doing too many things at once can not only strain the brain, but set us up for a raft of physical problems, too.
Dr David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who specialises in cognition and perception, insists, "Chronic multitasking over the years poses a strong risk for ultimate brain damage. As we force ourselves to bounce from task to task, we generate stress. Body and mind gear up to cope by releasing adrenaline. This powerful medicine is good for a crisis – but on an ongoing basis, it's hard on the brain and body."
Stress hormones divert energy from the part of our brain that forms memory (including the hippocampus) to the parts of the body needed for the "fight-or-flight" response. Long-term, this stress can lead to permanent shrinkage of the hippocampus.
What's more, Dr Meyer observed that multitaskers are losing the ability to concentrate.
According to Dr Marcel Just, who's researching ageing at in the US, that's because "there's only so much mental capacity to go around." If you run too many programs at once on a computer, it tends to crash. Ditto human memory.
Multitaskers also tend to sleep badly, which not only impacts on our immune system, but can increase the likelihood of other stress-related health problems like.
It's time to reclaim the idea of mono-tasking, that quaint idea of doing one thing at a time. It might just turn out to save our health, wellbeing and our relationships. (And I might get to spend time with my best friend, instead of typing messages to her at 5am).
HOW TO UN-MULTITASK
Not all multitaskers are created equal, so if you want to detox your tasking routine, it helps to take a customised approach. Make one small change at a time. If you give up multitasking completely, you'll be on overload again before you know it.
- Each morning, earmark one or two TV programmes that you'd really like to watch that night and have a long, indulgent girlie chat with a friend.
The Office Juggler – You pride yourself on being able to cope with whatever your day (or boss) throws at you – but in reality, projects pile up and only get finished when there's a deadline. You probably get in early and stay late, too, to keep on top of your e-mails.
- Clear your desk so that it's easier to focus on each project. (A carefully-labelled hanging file under your desk is better than a mountain of folders.) Block out periods of time to work on specific projects. But never go more than 90 minutes without a break, because the brain needs time to recharge. Set aside 15-minute chunks, a few times a day, to deal with e-mail, rather than keeping it permanently open – and get a spam filter, so you're not spending time deleting irrelevant info.
The Domestic Perfectionist - You bend over backwards to make sure your home looks like something out of one of those glossy homes magazines you subscribe to. You have a pile of vintage curtains just waiting to be turned into gorgeous cushions, and spend hours spritzing your linen with lavender water. But there are piles of things behind the sofa because you never quite finish tidying one space before moving on to the next – and that mountain of ironing just keeps getting higher.
- Remind yourself that the homes in magazines don't look like that for more than about five minutes. (It takes a stylist and much grooming to get camera-ready, and invariably, just out of shot, there's a vast pile of junk. If not, the place is inhabited by aliens.) Slow down, take a breath and ask yourself: Which is more important, a perfect home, or health and happiness? Buy less, so there's less to tidy. Try folding clothes when they're straight out of the drier, to save time at the ironing board. And why not pay someone to make those pretty cushions for you?
The Crazed Cook - Your kitchen walls are lined with cookbooks and Saturdays are spent dashing around town seeking out tamarind paste. You're constantly tearing recipes out of magazines – but never seem to get round to creating them. In fact, the last time you spent all evening in the kitchen, stirring, pouring, flambéing and crisping with your blowtorch you were ready to collapse.
- Think like a Frenchwoman: buy the starter, or dessert, so that you're less frazzled and can actually enjoy your friends' company. Enlist their help – dressing the salad, pouring the wine. Have a ruthless cull of your cookbooks, keeping only the books that you refer to time and again. Author Shirley Conran was right when she said that life really is too short to stuff a mushroom.
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