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Trying To Do Too Much?

Mind over matter

The control center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, can handle just one new thing at a time, explains Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. But as tasks become more familiar, their operating instructions move deeper into the brain. There, the basal ganglia-islands of nuclei responsible for movement-handle activities that require almost no thought. So, for example, "when you're walking and talking," says Grafman, "the basal ganglia does the walking, while the frontal cortex does the talking."

Another way to look at it: You can combine tasks that use different sensory channels in your brain. It's tough to send an e-mail and carry on a phone conversation (not that many of us don't try). But it's pretty easy to fold clothes while listening to the weather report on the radio-unless, that is, a winter storm warning is announced. As you visualize the coming storm, your mental imagery and actual eye movements will struggle for dominance-and your mind will always win. Soon you'll begin putting mismatched socks together.

Young vs. old

By now you may be wondering: Aren't there exceptions to these rules? For example, aren't young people, with their agile minds, better equipped to multitask than the rest of us? "I'm not comfortable unless I have seven windows open on my desktop," declares Hillary Miller, 26, a playwright and teacher in Brooklyn. Online, she'll read a script, check e-mail, scan a newspaper, and shop for leather-free handbags-pretty much at the same time. But Miller admits she's not really concentrating on anything: "I have no focus. It's just a compulsion."

Young people can switch more quickly between tasks, confirms Jordan Grafman, because they've grown up with the new technology and trained themselves to use it. "But," he adds, "that makes them even more prone to sacrifice quality." Says David Meyer: "The brain is wired in ways that impose limitations. Nobody-no kid, CEO, or world-class athlete-can overcome that."

Turn off, reboot

So how do you get more done without multitasking-or at least without multitasking to excess? Preparation is one answer. Reflecting on the day ahead helps prime the mind, enabling it to rehearse the tasks it has performed before, says Grafman. Prioritize what must get done, and then make a schedule rather than a to-do list, advises Dr. Hallowell.

Discipline is also part of the mix. When you're working, he says, train yourself to deflect distractions, whether it's the ding of the e-mail in your in-box (check it when you're done, or turn off the sound), the start of a favorite TV show (record it for later), or the ring of the phone (let the answering machine pick up).

Most important, spend some part of each day clearing your mind. Meditate, take a walk, exercise, stare into space. The key is to wipe the mental slate clean, giving those overtaxed neurons a chance to recoup. This can yield unexpected benefits: As Dutch researchers recently reported in the journal Science, the unconscious mind is often a better problem-solver than the focused one.

Dr. Sternberg suggests you think about the original multitasking model: the computer. Trying to do too many things at once is like sending e-mail spam to your brain. When that onslaught freezes the computer, the only fix is to turn it off and reboot. Dr. Sternberg believes you should show the same compassion for your human hard drive. "You're pushing your brain beyond its capacity," she says. "You wouldn't do that to your car or your computer. But you do it to yourself all the time. Stop and take a break."

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