I like to think I excel at multitasking. Whether folding laundry while cooking dinner, checking email while posting on social media, or crocheting while watching television, I rarely do one thing at a time. Even if I am not physically doing more than one thing, I am mentally doing so. Making a grocery list while unloading the dishwasher, thinking about an email I need to send on the drive to work, my mind is often not actively engaged with the activity at hand.
Due to this “skill” however, I recently discovered I find it difficult to concentrate on any one thing. Reading – a hobby I have enjoyed my entire life – has become increasingly demanding. It requires effort and focus, and does not lend itself to doing anything else at the same time. Watching a movie for the sake of enjoyment is also challenging. Even while listening to a podcast on my commute, my thoughts wander, and I miss parts of the conversation that are instrumental to the understanding of the subject at hand.
Reading for pleasure or watching a movie are issues to be addressed, but these distracted practices also have real repercussions. Observe any table in a restaurant and you will see people having conversations while surfing the web, engaged on their phone, or otherwise not giving people their undivided attention. Not being aware can also be downright dangerous; texting while driving and other distracted driving behaviors lead to thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of accidents in the United States each year.
Multitasking is something that we tend to pride ourselves on. Busy is better so he who has the most irons in the fire must be the best. However, a 2016 article in Psychology Today reported that multitasking can lead to increased distractibility, memory problems, and stress. Ironically multitasking actually makes a person LESS productive and LESS efficient. The human brain is not “wired” to do more than one thing at a time (except for so-called automatic behaviors) – in reality, a person is not multitasking when they do multiple tasks but “task switching.” Similarly, Health.com reported a French study that found the human brain can only handle two complicated tasks at a time with ease before mistakes start to be made.
Aside from the productivity angle of the matter, there is also the issue of the quality of life and human relationships. Being present is something that takes a conscious effort; and being present, or mindful, can actually increase both productivity and enjoyment of life. Mindfulness is defined as the “psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment” Some people find it quite simple to live “in the moment” while others – myself included – have to actively work at maintaining that sense of the here and now.
So how to balance the need to multitask for the sake of time with the need to be fully aware and present? When I do choose to do more than one thing at a time, I can limit the number of things I am doing to ensure that whatever those activities are, they are being done correctly. I can remember that no text, post, or other distraction is worth an accident and certain kinds of multitasking are non-negotiable. I can focus on people, conversations, and tasks rather than letting my mind “flit” around from subject to subject – mantras can help; a simple “be here now” with a deep breath can be enough to refocus my attention on the endeavor at hand. I can – as we all need to– slow down, look around, and be aware.
Our lives are busier than ever and distractions often come from every direction at every hour of every day. Marilyn vos Savant is quoted as saying, “Multitasking arises out of distraction itself.” Yes,
multitasking is sometimes necessary, but mindfulness is a practice that – if employed and applied with sincerity – makes us cognizant that what we are doing, and more importantly, those with whom we are interacting, is worth our entire attention. May we have the mindfulness to focus on the task – or person – at hand.
-Karri Temple Brackett