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."

And that is driving people nuts, he says. "After awhile, if you do that the whole day long, you get this vague feeling that you're not done. And that you're never done. And that when you go home, you're still not done." And science has proved, he says, that behavior produces a kind of stress called "learned helplessness."

"As soon as you have that type of stress, you can actually show that people don't do math problems very well, they can't perform very well on memory tests," he says. "There's a whole range of cognitive gadgets in the brain that begin to collapse, if you feel like you're not getting anything done. And I'm convinced that half the work force is experiencing that on a weekly basis. In fact, I even have a name for it: the Sunday Evening Blues."

This means you may be able to ratchet down the pace over the weekend, even sleep in on Saturday (and lack of sleep is another issue with Medina, one he says just pummels the brain -- but that's a story for another day). Late Sunday night, though, the pressure creeps back.

"On Sunday night, your brain is darn well aware that pretty soon you're going to hit the firewall again, or that it's going to hit the fan, and come Monday morning it starts all over again."

And that is particularly true for America's children, whose schooldays are often tightly structured and completely time-pressed.

"It's one of the biggest contributors to stress," says Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University's School of Education, and the founder of the university's Stressed Out Students program. "If you're running around, period to period, every 50 minutes, with three to five minutes of 'passing time' in between, you are literally on a crazy treadmill all day long."

And the school day, for most students in the United States, doesn't end there. Many have as much as three, four or five hours of homework at night. If children's hours were governed by federal regulators, fines might be in order.

Pope started her organization after finding that research backed up her own concerns about the stress students are experiencing: more seeking mental health services, more cheating, more suffering severe anxiety. One survey found that 460 parents in two California school districts cited school-related stress among the top concerns for their children.

And many teachers are growing concerned, too. At the most recent Stressed Out Students national conference, one educator noted that "school for many kids is not a place to learn, but a place to perform. We need to begin to change the culture so our youth can take joy in learning."

Pope agrees. "We know kids learn better when there's time to sit and focus and reflect, really reflect on a subject, in depth," she said.

She and her colleagues recommend that school districts reconsider having students cover more than two or three subjects in a day. Better, they believe, to have longer periods for single subjects, and work on homework while still in the classroom, while the lessons are still in their heads. And if a teacher feels the need to assign work for the student that night, it should never be busy work. It should be assigned sparingly, as a way to reinforce the lessons taught earlier in the day.

Ideally, teachers would coordinate homework assignments to make sure students aren't going home each evening with another three hour's worth of work ahead of them. "We're really looking at schools to change the notion of 'time' and how you use your time," she says.

Indeed, Medina says. If he's enthusiastic about changing the way adults look at time, he's positively zealous about changing it for our children, saying the way most elementary and secondary schools are structured is "a train wreck" for the brain.

"If you're in high school, and you have five 50-minute periods of information in unbroken, declarative firehose streams, where a teacher literally sprays the knowledge and splatters it all over your brain and you're expected to absorb it, well, we know that's not how the brain learns."

The brain, he says, needs time to absorb information, review it and store it. And that kind of time can't be tightly scheduled, especially for the developing brains of children. It's especially true for children that "the more unstructured you make them, the more 'thinking' they become," he says

That doesn't mean, though, parking them in front of TV screens or video games. Those are just different forms of "structured" time -- the TV show runs a certain length, the video games are timed. They can just add to time pressure.

"The more ventilation you give the kids to be themselves, with a playtime that is unstructured and really imaginative, the more likely they are to mobilize their God-given IQs and perform in a way that I think parents actually want them to perform," Medina says.

Lessons for all of us: Lessons for all of us: Sometimes faster is really slower, and doing less can help you accomplish more. And sometimes, the most productive way to schedule our time is to leave a big, blank space in our itinerary … and let our brain fill it in.