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Is Multitasking Actually a Myth?

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When you're a family caregiver, your list of to-dos probably feels endless: doctor appointments, meting out medications, prepping meals, shopping, scheduling home visits, not to mention caring for your own family, working, and, oh, trying to carve out a few minutes of peace and quiet... and that's just Monday.

In order to tackle the exhaustive list of responsibilities, many caregivers turn to multitasking to get it all done in the least amount of time. I define multitasking as conducting two (or more) unrelated activities at the same time -- lets say, doling out a prescription while talking on the phone with your child's teacher. "Did I just give you two or three pills, Mom?" You see where this is heading.

The truth is, effective multitasking is an oxymoron. Research has shown that your brain can only process one activity at a time. But what the brain is extremely good at is rapidly switching from one task to another.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller (Think You're Multitasking? Think Again: John Hamilton, NPR October 2008) says, "Switching from task to task, you think that you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But, you're not." You're really toggling between tasks at amazing speeds. Apparently, we were never multitasking. It's a myth!

For decades, we've been lead to believe that people who are effective multitaskers have either genetically inherited this unique ability, or, through constant practice, have acquired the skills required to function at higher levels than the rest of us. Interestingly, many family caregivers actually aspire to be proficient multitaskers because they believe it'll eventually make life easier for everyone.

I'll admit that I was one of those people who "practiced" multitasking. And it felt pretty good to tick off boxes on my to-do list, even though I often felt scattered and frustrated, because "completed" well, just didn't feel... "completed."

As far back as 2001, scientists at the Center of Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that when people were driving in traffic and conversing, two tasks most of us consider easy and natural, the area of the brain that managed these functions was overwhelmed. Researchers found that brain activity didn't double, but rather it decreased, so each task was completed less efficiently and less expertly than when being conducted separately. That's why texting and driving is so dangerous.

As a family caregiver, you may say, "I have a ton of things to do and only so much time to do them, I have to multitask." But chronic multitaskers ultimately diminish their powers of mental organization, demonstrate increased difficulty switching between tasks, and report more social problems than low-multitasking peers, according to Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stamford University. On top of that, the rapid swapping between tasks also generates pulses of stress hormones, which contribute to heath issues like memory dysfunction.

I realize that a certain amount of multitasking is somewhat inevitable given the amount family caregivers have on their plates each day. But there are several new habits you can adopt to mitigate stress and enable you to focus more successfully:

1. At the start of each day, prioritize your tasks into three groups: the tasks that you must do, tasks that you should do and finally those tasks that you would like to do. Focus only on the "musts" -- everything else is icing.

2. For family caregivers, uncertainty is the only certainty, so when unplanned events pop up, hit the pause button and see where to include these last-minute tasks on your to-do list. Just because a task comes up unexpectedly, doesn't mean it's automatically a "must."

3. Don't go it alone. As you schedule your day, identify a family member or friend that can lend a hand and then ask for help. Asking for help can be empowering.

4. When things go haywire, step away for a few minutes. The simple act of changing your physical stance has a tremendous emotional impact. Once you've reclaimed your calm, return your attention to your "must" list.

5. Know that multitasking might feel comfortable, like an old shoe, but making a concerted attention to narrow your focus and compartmentalize will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

So, please include these suggestions into your daily routine, but I recommend trying them one at a time! Be well.

Help yourself. Help others.

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