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The Myth of Multitasking

Drinking coffee, skimming email, writing a report, checking our texts — we can get it all done and then some!  Or so we think.  In the world of 24/7 cyber-living, we watch TVs with our phones in hand, study the newspaper with our laptops open and interrupt dinner to answer “just one text.”

Unfortunately, all we’re gaining with this multi-pressured, multi-pronged approach to each moment is a scattered brain, weakened memory, and a loss of productivity. That’s right! There is no such thing as multitasking — in the human world, at least.  (Now if you want to pretend you’re a robot, we can discuss how many processors you have installed.)

Psychiatrist and ADD specialist Dr. Edward Hallowell states in his book CrazyBusy that multitasking is a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In fact, neuroscientists have found that the human brain is capable of responding to one task at a time, no matter how hard you try to jam three or more through its processor.

Jamming your moments — and, in turn, your brain — with multiple activities causes a major bottleneck in your thought control. Time is lost as the brain has to determine which task to respond to first. Psychologist Rene Marois of Vanderbilt University used functional MRI studies to demonstrate the “response selection bottleneck” that occurs when our control centers are trying to determine which “Do-It-Now” order to respond to first.  Unlike Amazon’s fulfillment center, our human wiring is not set up to multi-process everything we want, at one time.

Janice Maturano, a corporate attorney and mindfulness educator describes multitasking as the process of taking a few steps back, to regain where you were in a task, before advancing it forward. “When you’re moving from this project to this project,” she states in Dan Harris’ memoir 10% Happier, “your mind flits back to the original project, and it can’t pick it up where it left off.  So, it has to take a few steps back and then ramp up again, and that’s where the productivity is lost.” (my emphasis)

But multitasking not only robs you of productivity, it releases stress hormones and adrenaline, which contributes to long-term health problems and short-term memory loss.  (And we thought we were being so clever.)

So how do we manage our cyber-addicted selves and get better at productivity?  Marturano recommends one of the basic tenets of mindfulness: do one thing at a time.  When you are talking to your wife, talk to your wife. When you are talking on the phone, talk on the phone. With great discipline and intention, practice doing one thing, at one time.

And .. sorry, but there’s more:  take “purposeful pauses.”  So, when you’re walking down the street, look around you at the colors, hear the sounds, or feel the sensations in your legs moving to ground yourself in the present moment.  (And keep that phone in your pocket.)  Stand up from your computer, every 30 minutes or so, and take a short stroll, look out the window, stretch.  Pausing and connecting with the present moment, by using your senses, actually contributes to strengthening your focus and clearing your thinking.  That’s right, you will become a better thinker and get more done, by pausing.

But don’t take Marturano’s word for it or any of the scientists.  Ask the executives at Google or do a little reading on Steve Jobs. They all found using mindfulness — with discipline and intention — the best way to get the edge.

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I’m a certified mindfulness teacher and speaker who helps students – of all ages – pause, breathe and think. As a mother, long-time educator and writer, my goal is to share the brain-changing benefits of sitting still. For over 20 years, it’s been my practice and my compass.

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