No one can concentrate on more than one thing at the same time. Doing and concentrating on are not the same thing. – S Long

At the time of writing, this was one of my most recent tweets. Assuming that you’re still reading this and not throwing social networked, rotten fruit and vegetables at me with loud boos of disbelief and heresy, let me further explain my point.

Firstly, I didn’t say: do more than one thing at the same time. The crucial word is concentrate. Everyone does more than one thing at the same time. Reading this post, you are breathing (that’s two things already), your heart’s beating, you’re constantly monitoring the world around you and within you are millions of other procedures, all occurring without your mental effort.

That’s the point: they occur unconsciously; they need no mental effort on behalf of the brain and that’s just the way the brain likes it. Given the opportunity, your brain would gladly make everything that it does need no mental effort. Automatic responses expend little energy. The brain is, in essence, lazy.

Thus, doing more than one thing is essential for life. However, doing more than one thing at a time and concentrating on more than one thing at a time are entirely different things. In Brain Rules, John Medina makes it perfectly clear: you can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time. You undergo a constant switching from one concentrating task to another and it takes in the region of a 10th of a second to make the switch. Ask any 100 metre athlete whether a 10th of a second makes any difference and I suspect that they will reply: It makes all the difference since for the world’s élite sprinters that’s in the region of 1 metre travelled. Click here for a very informative article on the exploits of sprinters, in particular Bolt.

To return to my point, neither men, nor women, have the ability to concentrate-multi-task; it is simply neurologically impossible. The switching process is so long in some contexts such as driving a car while talking on a mobile phone or putting on your make up that the increase in accident potential is significant. In the home or the office, the switching delay might mean a very unproductive day. Perhaps, worst of all in terms of learning, a constant switching means a lack of concentration on anything. That will probably result in very little learning retention.

What to do
1. Stop kidding yourself that you can concentrate on more than one thing; you can’t; ever
2. Whatever you’re singly concentrating on repeat its learning, as soon as possible. Returning to Medina’s book again: you must repeat to remember if you ever hope to keep this information in working (formerly, short-term) memory and ultimately in long-term memory
3. A lot can happen in a 10th of a second; a lot will be missed too if you’re trying to concentrate on more than one thing. So, stop kidding yourself that you can concentrate on more than one thing; you can’t; ever. See, repeat to remember!

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