Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Poison of Multitasking

First of all, credit for the title of this posting goes to my wife, Kathy. She said it while we were exploring various aspects of bringing simplicity to daily life with my Tuesday night Mindfulness Study and Discussion Group. To be precise, it should be noted that we are concerned here with human multitasking, since the term originated as a reference to multiple simultaneous computer functions.

When we multitask, we appear to be doing more than one thing at the same time. Studies have shown, however, that during multitasking, we are actually getting less done and tend to make more mistakes. In his book, Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, psychiatrist Richard Hallowell goes so far as to describe multitasking as a "mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”

From the neurobiological perspective, the brain requires time to take a moment to refocus its attention when performing multiple sequential functions. Therefore, when we are trying to do lots of things at once, at best we are only able to devote enough attention to each one to skim over them and pick out bits of information here and there. In reality, as Kathy noted last night, "We are not really present for any of it. Instead of a task having a beginning, a middle, and an end, when we multitask there are only middles." Nothing really gets accomplished and we can rarely feel a sense of accomplishment for bringing a task to completion.

Thinking that we are getting a lot done when we are actually aren't is a hallmark of methamphetamine and cocaine addiction, as well. As I have mentioned in this blog, the same chemicals that are released in the brain when we take these drugs are also produced when we are under high stress (see 1/25/10 blog). Multitasking is often the result of (and results in) stressful feelings. The resulting chemical release may lead to the same overblown sense of our ability to get things done as reported by meth and coke addicts.

As I have mentioned before, one answer to this problem is to just do one thing. When you are talking on the phone, resist the urge to surf the internet. When you are talking to your spouse, or your child, or your co-worker really listen and be present for them. Turn off the television, talk radio, and computers when you are having dinner. When you drive, just drive. Acknowledge the accomplishment of completing one thing before moving on to the next.

For me, creating a blog every single day for a year has been a daily exercise in focusing my attention. There is a marvelous sense of success and accomplishment that I feel every time I click the PUBLISH POST button. Don't get me wrong - I, too, find myself giving in to the compulsion to multitask all the time. Yet having to pay attention so completely to this one thing has been a great practice. Of course, the sense of satisfaction is impermanent because I will have to come up with something else to post tomorrow. 

Kathy suggested that maybe that's the deeper reason underlying why we are so attracted to multitasking: it keeps us so busy that we never get done with anything. That way we don't have to acknowledge the impermanence of our accomplishments. 

But I think I'll save that tangent for another day...

"The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb. A zombie. When you are dead, you're not able to do the work of society. When you are fully alive, you're constantly saying "No" to many of the processes of society: the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water, and eating carcinogenic foods. Thus it is in the interests of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our modern consumer society itself functions like as an addict." ~ Anne Wilson Schaef

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