Multitasking: The big lie

Where are you right now? What are you doing? Are you listening to music while on your elliptical and reading this article? Are you making dinner, reading this, and also having a half conversation with your spouse? We all try to save time – life’s only truly nonrenewable resource – by doing multiple things at once.

When “multitasking” first started appearing in our mainstream language it was lauded as a good thing; a way to get more done in less time. The ability to multitask “successfully” is a sought out trait by employers, a thing we tell ourselves we should be able to do. We’re under increasing pressure to be able to do several things at once, and each successfully.

The catch is that it simply doesn’t work out that way.

No complex task can or should be “multitasked”. Only simple behaviors that require little brain power can be multitasked with much success. We can cook dinner and talk to a friend at the same time. We can walk and carry a laundry basket too, but these things don’t require much focused concentration.

When you start trying to do two separate and dissimilar things that require equal greater amounts of focused attention, you’re heading for trouble. You’ll read something but not hear what someone says to you well enough to remember it. Entering mileage on your work travel log while listening to a continuing education credit course means you’ll have a few typos or you’ll miss a few details from the course.

Why? Miller’s Law, which is psychology slang for studies done which showed that our performance begins to falter as the number of stimuli (remembered tasks/objects) is increased. Miller’s Law also includes research that showed we can typically remember seven items at a time. The number7 is a bit of a magic number when it comes to memory.

If the science isn’t your thing, though, just ask yourself how well you really feel like you remember a conversation you’ve had with the TV on, while writing a paper, and being interrupted by your children asking for snacks? It won’t take long to think of times multitasking

Imagine an empty paper plate. Mentally add items to it. The plate is getting crowded with each item you add. The paper plate starts to buckle under the weight of all you’re piling onto it and it bows in the center. Eventually something (or a few things) falls off that plate. The expression “full plate” to symbolize busy schedules or lives is a clear illustration that works here. Our memories and minds work similarly.

We stress out when we take on many different tasks and enter into chipping away at them simultaneously. We don’t get things done the way we’d like and then we have a lower feeling of accomplishment or a sense of forgetfulness. This leads straight down the path of feeling under accomplished and a little rotten about our ability to “get things done”.

Multitasking isn’t good for our final product or our mental health. The pressure to do multiple things at once increases alongside the tech that enables us to do so. Having talks with the kids while scrolling Facebook; eating while checking the news, and texting while driving are all examples of our desire to get things done – all based on the lie that we can do things that way effectively.

This brings me to another point: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. It is the practice of fully engaging in the moment you’re in with awareness, attention, and focus. When we’re not mindful we miss out on the details of our lives. The little things, like a kid telling us about a peer conflict at school, slip right under the radar when we’re sucked into multi-everythinging.

This week I’ll be working toward single tasking by

  1. Accepting my human abilities for what they are
  2. Avoiding judging myself harshly when I am unable to get everything done as quickly as I’d like
  3. Being mindful of and adjusting my self-expectations for productivity based on what my actual abilities are
  4. Putting my phone down

Below are some awesome tips to get your single tasking life started and a graphic for sharing! Enjoy!

  • Eat meals without checking phones, TV, or news. Enjoy the food and whatever company you have at meal times. If you eat solo, use this time as a mindfulness exercise to really focus in and pay attention to your moment! Food invokes so many senses it’s easy to do with something tasty in front of you.
  • Pick a movie and watch it without getting up for a snack, to check the laundry, or your phone. It’s harder than we realize to do this anymore!
  • Try putting on a music album and listening from start to finish without doing anything else. My favorite one to use for this mindfulness exercise is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – so much going on in it it’s easy for me to get “sucked in” and stick with it.
  • Be mindful of the things that distract you when you’re working on a single task. Make a note of them, and then get back on task.
  • Create a mindfulness practice you can actually keep up with. 3 to 5 minutes prior to stepping into the shower every day should do it. This mindful focus will stick with you throughout the day.
  • Tech detox by shutting off phones, even for a short period of time.
  • When working on a project of a specific nature, have only the materials needed for that task handy. Put other projects on the back burner literally by clearing away files or other items related to different projects. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Set time aside for chores. One of the worst habits I have is feeling like all the mundane chores of life have to be done before I can do something else. I end up looking under the furniture during yoga and then pausing to grab the Swiffer an rescue socks from under the couch, which leads to deciding to sweep, which leads to mopping…it’s a trap! Delegate chores, and set time aside to do them.
  • Check to make sure you have no more than 1 browser window open at a time while surfing the net. I have about 15 open at most times!

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