Brain Training: How to Stay Focused and Stop Multitasking

The flexibility of online life, connected life, and mobile life is turning your brain to mush. Do one thing at a time.


I’ve been reading a lot about how multitasking and technology is rewiring our brains. There is now research showing that technology causes our brains to develop differently. Or at least, I think there is, because I’ve only really skimmed the first couple paragraphs of the articles. OK, OK. Truthfully, I’ve read the headlines. And that’s the limit of how much I can pay attention.

Sadly, this is becoming a serious issue. Yesterday, one of the articles talked about how many people are literally unable to read a full article without checking mail, getting distracted, and some serious multitasking. While reading that article, I probably checked email twice and Facebook twice. I realized that the evil brain training has happened to me, and it is not happy-making. I no longer know how to focus and how to stay focused. The all-knowing Gods of Silicon Valley are doing this quite consciously. Steve Jobs strictly limited his kids’ screen time. He knew exactly what damage his products do to the brain. Perhaps someday they’ll stop being greedy psychopaths and invent a product that helps us, rather than hurts us. On the other hand … my Apple stock is doing really well, and that’s what matters!

1980s Rules!

As we know from my recent episode on decision-making, it’s easier to adopt absolute rules than make nuanced decisions. Where can we find rules that restore our brains and teach us how to focus? We just need to return to the pre-high-tech bastion of sanity, the 1980s. So, get out your leg warmers and your neon dance clothes. Practice your moves from Flash dance, feather your hair, and grab your mascara. And ladies, what are you waiting for? You can’t let the men have all the fun, you should also get out your 1980s outfits.


The basic principle is easy: physically remove the possibility for distraction, then just keep your brain on one task. In the 1980s, phones were attached to the walls, so you could only make phone calls in certain physical locations. There were only three major TV networks, shows only came on at certain times, and time shifting was difficult. When you were driving, you couldn’t make calls. Generally, when you were doing one thing, it was hard to do something else because physically, the option didn’t exist. Maybe you could be on the phone and watch TV, but generally, multitasking as we now know it was quite rare. Even the word “multitasking” was just a buzzword in the IT world that no one else had ever heard.

Pay Attention When Reading

My brain dysfunction became clear with reading. Any article over 300 words is actually hard for me to read. I lose interest after the first few paragraphs and it requires serious effort to keep focus. The new rule: when you start reading an article, you have to finish. That’s the rule. If you read the first paragraph, you must read all the way to the end. This will be hard at first, but force yourself. Train your brain the way a Jane Fonda aerobics videotape trains your body! This is the 1980s, back in living color!


You’ll discover this does two things: it helps you keep your mind focused, and you’ll quickly learn to be more conscious of which links you choose to click.


Stay Focused When Writing

My Get-it-Done Guy episodes started out taking me about an hour and a half to write. Now, they often take 3-5 hours, just to write 1,100 words. That’s because every two sentences, I stop and check email, or Facebook, or see how many viewers I have on my webcam channel. Ironically, this very sentence is being composed almost 5 hours after the previous one, thanks to my stopping for a moment to check email.


When you’re writing, use the Hemingway method. Start typing and keep going. Use a full-screen text editor that eliminates visual distraction. Turn off notifications. Then start typing and don’t stop until you’re done. Then go back and edit. Pretty soon you’ll be writing best-sellers as fast as Danielle Steele!

Stop Multitasking When Talking

There’s nothing that tells you someone cares like sharing your deepest hopes and dreams with them, and then having them look up from their smartphone and say, “I just got to a whole new Candy Crush level!” When you’re talking to someone, turn your phone off—or at least to vibrate—and put it out of sight. In the 1980s, you had to go to the phone, you couldn’t carry it with you. Phone multitasking wasn’t very easy. At best, you could talk and try to watch Dallas at the same time. But you wouldn’t. Because you needed to find out who shot JR, so you’d tell your friend to call back after the show was over. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just pretend JR was a Pokemon, and you’ll be fine.)


If you want to blow your mind with the advanced exercise, try focusing while texting with someone. Rather than switching to some other activity while you wait for the other person to respond, just stay present and wait for their response, without doing something else. It’s kind of mind-blowing. You learn just how little is really getting communicated in text, and how slow it is.

Use Social Media and Email Sparingly

Social media and email are inherently multitasking. Your attention gets tossed between topics in whatever order they hit your timeline, feed, or inbox. Use these sparingly. Like saturated fats, they’re unhealthy, but super-tasty and addictive. Like any good drug dealer, Mark Zuckerberg has made $44 billion dollars figuring out how to make Facebook ever-more-addictive, and in the process, has probably given most of us permanent brain damage. Viva la social media.




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