May 12, 2003

Multitasking Madness

by Gregg Krech

"To do two things at once is to do neither."
--Publilius Syrus

It's 8:00 p.m. on Thursday night and Rachel is balancing her checkbook as a television news magazine periodically attracts her attention to a story about a man who survived an encounter with a shark. Her five-year-old daughter is nearby playing with toys and regularly interrupts Rachel with questions about toys, sharks, checkbooks, and the moon. The phone rings. Rachel lowers the volume on the TV (but doesn't turn it off) and begins a conversation with her sister while checking the math in her checkbook.

This is multitasking -- the home version.

The business version involves checking email while opening the "real" mail, talking on the phone while surfing the web, and reading a proposal while listening to the morning business report on the radio. And then there's the travel version. Cell phones now make it possible to talk long distance and check stock quotes while you drive to the grocery store.

If you have music on in the background or you're reading a magazine while you sip on a cup of coffee, you're multitasking. Is that really so bad?

Well, David Meyer and his colleagues at the University of Michigan set out to measure the effects of multitasking and found that switching from one task to another actually makes you less efficient, not more efficient. In related research, Professor Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University used a brain-imaging machine to evaluate the effects of multitasking. He found that when two different parts of the brain are working on two different tasks, the brain works less efficiently, meaning that less brain power in total was directed at both tasks than would have been used if only one task was done at a time.

Then there are the conclusions of Dr. Larry Rosen and Dr. Michelle Weil of Byte Back Technology Consultation Services. Claiming to have studied 25,000 people worldwide, they stated:

"Multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomach aches or headaches. Our own research shows that Multitasking Madness makes it harder to concentrate for extended periods. You might notice that as you are working on one ask, thoughts about another creep into your consciousness . . . Another sign of Multitasking Madness is the feeling that your memory is not quite as good as it used to be. You start working on something and then find yourself not being able to remember what you wanted to do or say. Still another symptom is an inability to sustain a peaceful night's sleep or to enjoy what used to be calming, recreational times. Too many thoughts are buzzing in you head."

So if you're good at multitasking, try working on your likely weakness -- one pointed concentration. One pointed concentration involves putting all of your attention on one object and continually bringing it back to that object. Art is a wonderful opportunity to practice this kind of focused attention. But if you're going to paint or draw, try drawing or copying something in detail rather than painting something abstract. Or you might try calligraphy, origami or even the Japanese tea ceremony.

Such art forms help you develop the kind of concentration that many of us lack because we've devoted so much energy to distributing our attention over multiple tasks. Also, as you go through the tasks of your daily routine, try just doing one thing at a time. One of the most challenging exercises in our Working with Your Attention Distance Learning Course is "One Thing at a Time." The exercise is simple -- just do one thing at a time -- but incredibly difficult to do. Sit and listen to music and do nothing else. Eat your breakfast without your newspaper companion. Leave your walkman at home when you go out jogging.

I'm a realist. I'm not suggesting that you abandon multitasking. For many of us this may not be realistic given the demands of our life and our schedule. But if you do too much of it, you begin to lose the ability to concentration one thing at a time. You'll find that it's harder to become absorbed in what you're doing and experience that state of "flow" that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his book Finding Flow.

I play the piano (though not very well) and when I lived alone I would sometime stay up late in the small recording studio in my home composing, playing and recording. I would sometimes get so absorbed in my music that I would lose all track of time. Then I would look at my watch and be shocked to find that it was 3am. The quality of this kind of absorption is extraordinary. Your attention penetrates the object of your attention so thoroughly that you forget yourself, you forget everything. Multitasking prevents this complete concentration/absorption because you are continually distracted by the other tasks. Your mind is sculpted by such experiences so that, eventually, even when there is no "other" task, you are mentally distracted by things that are waiting to be done later.

Retraining your mind may not be easy. But you may find that there are benefits at the spiritual and psychological level. Computers may be capable of multitasking 24 hours per day. But the human soul may need to do things differently.

"In the kitchen, when you are cutting vegetables, cut vegetables. Don't talk, and don't look here and there. If somebody tries to get your attention, stop cutting and give her your full attention or ask her politely to let you finish first. You can avoid many kitchen accidents by this simple practice, but more than that, you are teaching your mind to make one-pointed attention a habit in everything you do."
-- Eknath Easwaran, Meditation Teacher

Gregg Krech is a leading expert in Japanese Psychology and director of the ToDo Institute where he conducts certification training, workshops and seminars. He is the author of several books including the award-winning book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002).

Posted on May 12, 2003 8:23 PM

This is really great, i was actually shurfing for a website on multitasking, and this web site had it all, great job, more grease to the elbows of those involved.

Posted by: amaka on June 4, 2004 5:29 PM
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