While serving as the Director of Mental Training for the St. Louis Cardinals, Dr. Jason Selk helped the team win their first World Series in over 20 years, and in 2011 he assisted the Cardinals in the historic feat of winning their second World Championship in a six year period. Considered to be one of the nation’s premier performance coaches, Dr. Selk helps numerous well-known professional and Olympic athletes as well as Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 executives and organizations develop the mental toughness necessary for high-level success. Below, Dr. Selk writes on the importance of focusing on one task, one at a time:
How do successful people win each day? They don’t manage time. They maximize it. They hack the calendar, improving it from a set of static time blocks to a stream of micro-increments. In that four minute span between meetings, they text a colleague or compose an email. One thing you won’t see them doing: multitasking.
I’ve written about channel capacity: there’s only so much information a passageway, such as bandwidth, can handle at a given moment. Same with the human brain: load it with too much information and too many tasks, and its ability to execute any of them well diminishes. For more on this I turned to leadership consultant Devora Zack, author of Singletasking. To perform at peak, whether an athlete or executive, requires singularity, says Zack, who helps the best manage their best, from Deloitte to the Smithsonian. But this isn’t theory. Zach drilled down to hard science to learn why multitasking is indeed a myth.
Think you’ve got that juggling act down pat? Here are four reasons why you don’t, according to Zack:
Multi-tasking = task switching. As Zack (and others) have found, multitasking decreases our productivity — by up to 40 percent. Polling researchers from Harvard to Stanford to the University of London, she got the same answer. When we multitask, we can actually lower our IQ. Our brains can’t process simultaneously separate streams of information from multiple tasks. Brains task-switch, according to Dr. Earl Miller of MIT: rapidly and ineffectively jumping from task to task.
Scattered thinking = scattered brain. When we task-switch, we’re essentially overloading our own channel capacity, piling on information in multiple streams. The result: we train our brains to underperform. I’ve written much about developing good habits, such as training ourselves to prioritize and stay in the moment. As Zack writes, task-switching results in a serious case of SBS: Scattered Brain Syndrome. We literally lose the ability to concentrate. One sign: those telling moments when a name we just heard escapes us.
Over stimulation = poor performance. Doing too much can actually shrink our brains. Zack details the effect that overstimulation has on the brain, as seen in MRIs: in the face of constant overload, the prefrontal cortex actually shrinks. The reptilian portion of our brain, that old, ancient amygdala, takes over, and the brain is filled with anxiety, fear, and aggression. So much for high performance, toughness, or confidence.
Done = Done. I coach people to Get In, Get After It, Get Out — the moment you get into the office, get to work, tackle what matters, and then at the end of the day, declare yourself done. In Singletasking, Zack cites a Harvard Business Review study of how top-performing executives work, and don’t work. They take breaks. They sit down and focus on their lunch. They take a walk and clear their head. It’s like a mini version of a mental detox. And there’s an empowering purposefulness to this: having accomplished something, you give yourself a deserved, affirming break.
As I’ve found, success has everything to do the toughness to stay focused and committed. In all my experience as a Performance and Executive Coach, that’s a fundamental equation. But success and confidence also go hand in hand. A flurry of to-dos may look like an unscale-able wall. But when divided into single tasks, each one is a surmountable unit. That gives you the confidence you need to keep climbing — all the way to the top.