Multi-tasking isn’t a skill to aspire to after all

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Multitasking and maybe men have it right?

‘Multi-tasking’ could be defined as the ability to successfully do more than one thing at a time and it often seems to be discussed in the context of a considerable gender bias. Women are generally praised for their apparent prowess at it and men derided for their seemingly inherent inability to do it. It somehow seems to be thought of as BOTH an ‘innate ability’ as well as something that is a virtue resulting from hard work.

busy, busy, busy

In this article I would like to take the discussion of multitasking beyond the gender debate or perhaps even suggest, assuming the stereotype is true, that men might well have it right. I posit the hypothesis that in fact no-one is truly that good at multitasking and perhaps we shouldn’t even try to be!

But I thought I was good at multitasking

Not aspiring to be good multitaskers may be a rather controversial suggestion. You might well be relatively good at it, at least with activities that don’t require much mental capacity. Our brains, however, aren’t really equipped to deal well with more than one thing requiring any degree of thought processing at a time.

We all know that we live in an increasingly fast paced world and many of us feel challenged by this on a weekly, daily or perhaps even hourly basis. Much of the technology that now surrounds us can at times be both a blessing and a curse and I would imagine that a very large percentage of the population, if asked, would say that they feel stressed much more often and to a greater degree than they would like. We probably all listen to or engage in many conversations in a week expressing feelings of ‘overwhelm’ and ‘having too much to do’. In the bid to keep ahead of a seemingly never-ending ‘To Do’ list it surely makes sense to try to do as many of the items on it at the same time as we can, right?

Perhaps not… But to take a side-step for a moment I’d like to briefly explore the concept of mindfulness.

Mindfulness

The Oxford English Dictionary offers us two definitions of mindfulness as follows:

  1. The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  2. A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Mindfulness has indeed become a relatively commonplace treatment amongst mental health practitioners, including within the British National Health Service, for conditions such as depression and anxiety. The practice of mindfulness itself can be traced back to the spiritual tradition of Buddhism. In this sense a person may aim to keep their mind ‘in the moment’ and reduce distractions from other thoughts or bodily sensations about things other than what is currently being experienced.

A trivial example of this would be to consider a mundane activity such as washing dishes. If you were to cast your mind back to the last time you did this I wonder how aware you were of the feel of the water on your skin? The changes in texture as you moved your hands through the water, the bubbles, the air? Did you notice the sound of the water or the dishes clinking? Did you smell the fragrance of the detergent or remains of the food? I could go on but hopefully you get the idea. I suspect that even if you can remember the last time that you washed the dishes, that you most likely did it in a very routine way whilst perhaps thinking about lots of other things and paying very little attention to the task in hand. You may even have also been cooking dinner, listening to music, shouting at the kids to wash their hands at the same times as trying to catch up with your partner after a day at work. Not very relaxing and whilst you may well have got dinner on the table and the dishes more or less clean, (as these types of tasks don’t require much brain power), did you particularly enjoy any of the songs playing or remember much of what your partner said and did the kids ever get their hands washed?

In constantly trying to multitask we are in essence training our brain to function by constantly splitting its attention between different things so it can then become harder and harder to stay focused on any one thing. Part of the idea behind mindfulness, as a therapeutic technique, is that by learning to pay attention to input from all our senses in each moment we can retrain our mind to improve its ability to focus on one thing. With practice we may as a result lessen our tendency to ruminate and worry over things or to experience negative thoughts.

There is much more to mindfulness than this short outline[1] but hopefully that gives you enough information, if you aren’t familiar with the concept of mindfulness, to see that, in a sense, mindfulness could be described as the ‘antithesis of multitasking’. We might think that successful multitasking involves doing two things in parallel but in fact because we are asking our brain to alternately switch between tasks we create an extra load on its resources and on our valuable energy supplies[2].

Time for tea?

This isn’t an academic paper but suffice to say that there are plenty of reviews and research papers to be found outlining the benefits of mindfulness practices on our mental health and wellbeing. Perhaps, therefore, continuing to try to do lots of things at once is not in fact something that should be aspired to or considered desirable. How many times have you tried to have a conversation with someone who was also trying to do something on their phone or who you know is just waiting to put their point across? How did that feel? I’m guessing it probably wasn’t the most inspiring and engaging of conversations and it doesn’t make us feel valued. How many times recently have you yourself been the one distracted from the person in front of you? How successful were you at any of the activities you were doing and how might that other person have felt?

The more we try to split our attention between different tasks the less efficiently and successfully we will complete any of them, never mind how much we will enjoy the experience. There is something truly wonderful about talking to someone who is giving you their absolute undivided attention. How often do you remember having that experience or indeed offering that experience to someone else? A friend recently told me that the person in her life who consistently makes her the best cups of tea is the one who when he makes the tea is only making tea: try it!

I know it is a big ask in today’s world to never do more than one thing at a time but perhaps we could start with throwing out the idea that multitasking is a good thing. Aspiring instead to doing one thing at a time and doing it well we may take us further in improving our own wellbeing and genuine productivity as well as perhaps even changing the experience others have of us.

I will leave you with an ancient Zen proverb:

“When walking walk, when eating eat…”

Written by Dr Karen Janes, Natural Healing Energy (October 2017)


 

[1] For more comprehensive information about mindfulness I would suggest looking up books by the author Jon Kabat Zin.

[2] There is an interesting article published by Psychology Today, which explores this further if you’re interested in a bit more of the science: The Perils of Multitasking: Your smart phone can make you dumb. (2016). William R. Klemm: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201608/the-perils-multitasking

Category: B Positive