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Trying To Do Too Much?

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WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Alexis Jetter

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo New Research Says Multitasking Actually Slows You Down. Here's How To Be More Productive--And Less Crazed

Lisa Maxwell, 31, a fitness trainer and mother of three from Cookeville, Tennessee, considers herself a master multitasker. She routinely answers her children's homework questions while running on a treadmill, and she drills her kids on spelling from a list she reads while driving them to school. Of course, there is the occasional mess-up: Last summer, she was cooking, cleaning, and helping her kids with their science projects when she noticed the house smelled funny. "We had guests coming, so I'd sprayed what I thought was room deodorizer," she says with a rueful laugh. "I'd done half the house before I realized it was Pledge."

Most of us can relate. In fact, multitasking-starting one task before finishing another, a kind of warp-speed juggling-feels like the only way to power through our to-do list these days. Like the subtitle of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell's new book, Crazy Busy, we are "Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap." But are we really getting more done? And at what cost?

If you're reading this while doing something else, stop for a second. Because new studies are proving that the old adage is true: You really can't do two things at once-at least not well. And the research also shows something most of us would never suspect: If you multitask relentlessly, you can jeopardize your health in ways both large and small.

The idea of multitasking comes from computers, which appear to perform many functions at the same time. But the analogy is misleading. Most computers flip back and forth between tasks-and your brain operates in much the same way. It is literally impossible to pay conscious attention to more than one thing at once, notes Dr. Hallowell, a former Harvard Medical School instructor. So "you end up paying conscious attention to several tasks in rapid succession: making macaroni and cheese, unloading the dryer, feeding the dog," he explains.

But switching between tasks wastes precious time because the brain is compelled to restart and refocus. "Each time you have this alternation, there's a period in which you'll make no progress on either task," says David Meyer, Ph.D., director of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Lab at the University of Michigan. "It's mental dead time." The result: It takes longer to finish any one chore, and you don't do it nearly as well as you would had you given it your full attention.

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