We can’t do it all. At least not all at once, says the author of a new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The book’s author, Winifred Gallagher proposes that multitasking really is a myth and says she has the science to prove it. According to Gallagher, our brains have a finite processing capacity at any given time. And once that limit is reached, you can pretend to “multitask” all you want but the reality is that your brain is only getting some of the stimulus you’re feeding it.
She says this is especially true with sounds, which is why she carries earplugs for use in particularly noisy or busy public places. The next time you’ve got Dateline on the kitchen television while cooking dinner and talking to your spouse, think about which of those three activities is really being given the attention you intend.
In an interview with the N.Y.T., Gallagher offers some practical advice for tackling the constant stream of information most of us face.
She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.
Of course, this would be so much easier if we didn’t have so much to do. But, such is the delicate balance of single-tasking and still “getting things done.”