Here's how to apply neuroscience insights to tax season. NEXT QUESTION: What are the best time-management tips and strategies for busy season? Join the survey. Get the answers.
By Hitendra Patil
It’s October 14th. You are preparing a complex tax return. The cell phone rings. You look at the phone. It’s your wife calling. You answer the call. While on the call, you look at the third screen of your computer. There is an email from your largest client, with subject line “Emergency; please help.” In walks your receptionist, frantically gesturing that there is an irritated client at the front desk.
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Yes. You may recognize the multiple demands on your time and your brain. But multi-tasking is just a myth. The science is in: No one performs as well multi-tasking as they do when focused on a single task at a time.
Apparently, the term “multitasking” originated somewhere in the 1960s when computer chips started performing more than one tasks concurrently. Wikipedia, therefore, includes the words “human” and “apparent” in the definition of multitasking, to draw attention to the scientific fact that performing multiple tasks at the same time seems apparently possible, but not necessarily true.
Can You Really Multi-Task?
Neuroscience research (with all those “wired” brains) has been trying to find evidence of human brain activity when there are multiple demands on it.
Studies suggest that you can lose as many as 2.1 hours a day due to inefficiencies of multitasking caused by distractions, interruptions, etc. And as much as 40 percent productivity can be lost due to multi-tasking, suggesting it will take you that much more time to accomplish the same result. Net effect: Loss of opportunity to make more money.
In a research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, Marcel Adam Just and Augusto Buchweitz tried to find out “What brain imaging reveals about the nature of multitasking.” They report that the brain activity associated with driving decreases by 37 percent when the driver is also listening to someone speaking. This effect was more pronounced when talking on a cell phone – even hands-free.
“In simple reaction time dual tasks," the researchers say, "there is competition for what is identified as central cognitive processing resources. Two cognitive tasks may draw on and compete for a common central cognitive processing resource, usually associated with areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, that may be a bottleneck as the acts of selecting and generating a response in the two component tasks may interfere with each other.”
What happens when you “multi-task,” is that you are actually “sequential-tasking” or “task-switching.”
And every time you “switch” tasks, you are prone to increase inefficiencies, particularly of losing time due to the effort to re-remember the context of each task. After even the briefest interruption, have you ever said, “Where was I?” That's the evidence the "switching" inefficiency.
Research at the University of Pennsylvania, which studied the region of the brain associated with control over thoughts and actions, shows that how the brain’s internal networks reconfigure themselves while switching between tasks predicts the cognitive “flexibility” of people.
New research into different kinds of cognitive performance reveals that aging older adults often appear to activate different brain structures than young people when performing cognitive tasks. Early work in this area focuses on establishing brain regions associated with different kinds of cognitive performance. Studies suggest that younger people have stronger cognitive flexibility.
Neuroscience and Tax Season
Study after study proves that the brain cannot truly multitask. Don’t believe it? Try to write a letter to a client and at the same time read an email received from a client. When forced to switch tasks several times during tax season, it causes fatigue, stress, performance degradation, mistakes, errors of omission and so on. Such are the demands of tax season that there seems to be no escape. Or is there?
Here are some ways to combat tax season demands on your brain:
Studies suggest that aerobic exercises help induce brain plasticity that can improve cognitive flexibility, even in older age.
Reduce the need (and habit) to “switch” between tasks. E.g.
- While doing any task, provide as full attention as possible to only that task. Put away cell phone outside the field of view; disable pop-ups, reminders, email notifications etc.
- When you follow up with clients for missing information, put the words “missing information” in the subject line of the email and then set up filters to move all replies to a separate folder under inbox. Then set up a time to handle all further information provided by clients one after another, rather than acting on it at each moment when it comes in.
- Don't allow new information to break the flow of your thoughts. Instead, use downtime breaks to consume new information.
- Experts advise "filtering” – which you can accomplish by delegating, and “chunking.” Chunking means collecting the same type of task for multiple clients and doing them all at once. So that if you are reviewing returns, review many returns one after another rather than repeatedly cycling through prepare-and-review-and-prepare-and-review routines.
- Ditch the coffee, take a walk. Studies also suggest caffeine helps improve cognitive flexibility. Any wonder, the coffee machine is so busy during tax season? Health experts recommend replacing coffee with a 7-minute aerobics break.
- Think like a restaurant chef. Before even boiling water, they routinely gather and prepare all the ingredients they'll need. As an accountant, start to make a mental note of the software screen you spend most of your time on.
Do you find you find yourself zipping through a screen quickly and then slowing down on another? That's your brain on multitasking. It's switching gears to process information. Tax and accounting software screens place cognitive demands on two or more different parts of brain – making the tax-return production process less efficient and more time consuming.
The best practitioners instinctively create operating procedures to keep necessary information ready before even booting up. So instead of mentally processing information on the fly, they just take it from a readily available place.
NEXT QUESTION: The best practitioners have devised their own techniques for getting through tax returns fast and effectively. What tricks have you learned? Join the survey here. Get the answers.