Slow Down to Get More Done

When you sit down at your computer to log on, do you type the password really fast because you're in a hurry, only to have to retype it because you typed it wrong? And then you type it even faster because you've already lost time, mistyping it the first time? And maybe you have to re-enter it three or four or five times because you keep missing a key?

Why do so many people think they're getting more done by going faster? Often, we really aren't. The fact is that sometimes the faster we go, the less productive we are.

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"'I can't get it all done during the day' is something I hear over and over again," says John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of the new book "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School."

His work documents how the time pressures of work, school and life in our 24/7 age have created deep-seated problems for many of us.

"More and more tasks are being assigned to fewer and fewer people," he notes.

Then, there are the additional tasks we assign to ourselves, by scheduling our days so tightly that we leave no margin for running even five minutes late.

"I think we are in the beginning stages of understanding that that model is actually toxic," he says. "More and more people are rising up and saying, you know, there is something wrong with me. I'm not enjoying my life. I'm not a suicidal person, I'm not a depressed person, but this sucks."

This is a serious issue with Medina, a large part of the reason he wrote his book. Time pressures, he is convinced, are slamming our brains, draining the joy -- and ability to think clearly and create effectively -- right out of people's lives.

"They're beginning to see it because their time has been too structured. And they're beginning to understand that unstructured time may be the great ventilation," says Medina.

And, he says, unstructured time -- the opposite of "multitasking" -- is actually more productive.

"One of the great frustrations I have is with the concept of multitasking because, to put it bluntly, the brain is incapable of multitasking," he says.

In our culture, multitasking is considered a very efficient way to get more work done.

But that brings to mind images of the kids who work the drive-up lanes at the fast-food restaurants, taking an order from one customer while making change for another and answering a question from yet another. Those kids almost always look completely frazzled.

"You can walk and chew gum at the same time," Medina concedes, but when it comes to simultaneously performing multiple tasks that require intellectual attention, the brain can't do it. It locks in on one thing at a time. It can switch between tasks quickly -- in less than the blink of an eye -- but it does switch. And things can get dropped in the switching.

"It is true sequential processing," he says.

The brain needs a moment -- and it may be just a millisecond, but it needs it -- to stop focusing on one thing and start focusing on the next. "Every time you try to force it to multitask, you end up collapsing certain systems. And you can show that people on projects who try to multitask make twice as many errors and it takes them twice as long to get something done."

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