The Myth of Multitasking

By eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron

Picture this:

You’re on a conference call while simultaneously answering an email from a colleague when your cell phone pings with an urgent text. You hurriedly finish up your email so you can respond to the text all the while doing your best to listen in to the call.

Sound familiar? Many of us multitask our way through the workday to be more productive and at times just to keep our heads above water. Multitasking seems to be not only a necessary skill, but also an unavoidable aspect of the workplace. It carries over into our daily lives, too.

We walk the dog while scanning for the latest sports scores on our cell phone. We watch television while shopping on the web for a new pair of shoes. And we text while driving…even though we know it’s dangerous.

For better or for worse, multitasking has become a way of life. So much so, that it’s given rise to terms such as “continuous partial attention” to describe how we habitually pay superficial attention to multiple sources of information at once.

When we split our attention through multitasking, though, we miss out on the quieter moments that allow us to fully appreciate our work. It’s difficult to feel the satisfaction of a job well done when you’re doing two or three jobs at once. Even more than that, when we multitask we actually accomplish less and stress out more.

Multitasking, it turns out, is a myth.

In a now famous 2001 study, researchers at the University of Michigan showed that forcing the brain to mentally juggle multiple tasks takes longer and can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. Not only is multitasking wildly ineffective, it’s also stressful. Research shows multitasking increases our heart rate, raises our anxiety, makes us more error prone and even lowers our IQ.

Part of the reason for all of this is that the brain can’t functionally multitask. Instead, the brain rapidly switches from one neural network to another to fulfill the demands of being asked to do more than one thing at a time. It’s little wonder we feel so frazzled at times.

What’s the alternative? Single-tasking. At its heart, single-tasking is a daily mindfulness practice. It involves devoting attention to one activity at a time and resisting distractions that might pull you away from your chosen task.

Instead of answering email when on a conference call, for example, listen in on the call with your full attention and absorb the nuances of the conversation and even appreciate your colleagues’ contributions. Respond to your email and notice the sensations of your fingertips as they strike the keyboard. Before you react to a text, pause and take a breath, and finish up whatever else you might be doing in the moment.

In a multitasking world, single-tasking isn’t easy. It’s a practice that takes time some discipline. The rewards of single-tasking might surprise you, though.

By single-tasking, you might discover that you’re far more productive and a lot less frayed at the end of the day. Single-tasking can help you hone in on the task at hand and reap the reward of doing one thing well. You might also find some gratitude entering into your day. Leaving your phone behind on your walk with the dog, might give you a chance to appreciate – the Calendarsunset, a chat with a friendly neighbor or the simple delight of being with your pet. Here are a few suggestions on how to make single-tasking a daily mindfulness practice.

1. Notice the Urge to Multitask: Habits are hard to break. So, start small. Catch yourself in act of multitasking or better yet by notice the urge to multitask. Stop and interrupt the habit by taking a breath and choosing to do just one thing at a time.

2. Use Devices Wisely: Digital distraction is often at the root of our multitasking habit. Yet, we can wisely use our devices to help us single-task. Have only one screen open at a time on your computer. Set your cell phone timer for 10 or 15 minutes and devote yourself single-tasking for the duration.

3. Make a Game of It: Pick a specific multitasking habit you’d like to break such as texting while driving. Challenge yourself to go cold turkey for a week or even 30 days. Notice how your body and mind feel without the stress of multitasking. The ease that single-tasking can create might be reward enough, but feel free to sweeten the deal by rewarding yourself with a dinner out or a movie with friends.

Need help breaking the habitual patterns of multitasking?

Visit eM Life and access on-demand content, expert instructors, and a community of support. If you don’t already have an account, sign up for a free trial and start learning mindfulness skills that can help you see, think and focus more clearly one task at a time.

About the Author
Kelly Barron. M.A., is a certified mindfulness facilitator, at UCLA and writer. She teaches mindfulness for UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center as well as for corporations, schools and private groups. Kelly has worked as a mindfulness teacher with eM Life since 2016. She came to learn the value of mindfulness as a deadline-driven journalist. Now, she’s passionate about sharing mindfulness with others to help them live with more ease, clarity and joy. You can learn more about Kelly and read her blog at www.kellybarron.com.

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Also published on Medium.