Multitasking is Overrated

One of my favorite pastimes is listening to talk radio, especially the Diane Rehm Show on NPR.  A few months ago I was listening to her show and heard about a new study published in the Journal of Science.  The study found that when a person does one thing at a time, the right and left frontal lobes of the brain work together.  When a person tries to do two things at a time, the brain is able to divide the work between each lobe, delegating one lobe to do one task and the other lobe to do another, to get both tasks done.  In other words, the right and left sides of the frontal lobe each focus on a different task, and each lobe responds to its own separate goal.  Since the brain has to divide activities between the right and left lobes to do more than one thing at a time, the study concluded that we’re actually not that good at doing two things at once, even though the brain is capable.  The study went on to cite that when a third task is thrown into the mix, people are unable to focus on all three tasks and lose track of one of the first activities.  They start working much more slowly and make mistakes.

It got me to thinking about multitasking, which is considered by many to be a more efficient way to get things done.  You know, “The more I do at one time, the more I can get done” mentality.  I started noticing people talking on the phone, texting, listening to the radio, drinking coffee, eating something, and/or putting on makeup while they are driving.  I started noticing how it can become habitual to throw a load of laundry in the wash while preparing a meal, checking emails, and returning phone calls.  I started thinking about how children of divorce have such a hard time remembering everything they have to remember going back and forth between households, and how parents can become impatient with their forgetfulness, some times judging them as irresponsible.  What if it turns out they really can’t help it?  What if we practiced and modeled for them single-minded focus?

I began to think about how when we practice yoga asana, we are invited to be in the present moment doing only what we are doing, withdrawing our awareness from anything that distracts us from being fully present and conscious on our yoga mats.  The same of course is true in meditation.  I started noticing that injury on the mat, and off, occurs when the mind is distracted or on autopilot–not fully present.  I started noticing how relaxed I feel after a practice of single-minded focus.  It occurred to me that if this single-minded focus is positive on the mat, it probably has a positive effect off the mat.   So I challenged myself to try an experiment.  I picked one day out of the week, and for one month on that designated day I intentionally practiced doing only one thing at a time whether I was at work or at home.

When I was talking on the phone, I just talked on the phone.  I didn’t drive, check my emails, cook dinner, or make a purchase at the store.  I just talked on the phone.  When I watched TV, I just watched TV.  I didn’t eat, talk on the phone, or channel flip.  I watched whatever it was I was watching from beginning to end, without jumping up to get snacks.  When I drove I just drove.  I didn’t talk on the phone, listen to the radio, put on lipstick, or eat breakfast, or lunch.  I just drove.  When I was eating a meal I just ate the meal…no TV, no conversation, no answering the phone.  When I listened to music, I just listened to the music.  What a pleasure!

In my line of work, it’s next to impossible to do more than one thing at a time since what I do is interface directly with clients.   In order to be effective I have to withdraw my attention from everything except the person in front of me and be fully present.  So this practice was not totally unfamiliar to me.  I had just never consciously tried it outside my office in my daily activities.

I discovered that when I purposely did just one thing at a time, instead of getting less done, I accomplished more.  I made fewer mistakes, had less anxiety, less stress, and less frustration.  The quality of what I did was enhanced and I actually enjoyed what I was doing more than usual because I was conscious and in the present moment.  I didn’t know at the time it was also a way of optimizing my brainpower.

I know many of you think you don’t have time to do just one thing at a time.  That’s what I thought until I tried it.  Now I try not to do it any other way, although I do slip up and find myself multitasking from time to time (old habits are hard to break).  What helped convince me of the value of doing one thing at a time was noticing that when I multitask, that’s usually when I forget that I have put bread in the oven until it either burns, or dinner is over, or I leave the load of laundry I started while I was getting ready for work in the washing machine and find it there mildewed the next day, or I push “send” on an email I meant to delete…not good!

Doing one thing at a time is a simple practice but not easy to do, especially in a fast- paced culture that rewards multitasking.  In fact, it’s pretty radical.  My invitation to you is that you try it out and see how it feels.  Don’t be surprised if you have an experience like one of my clients did, who gave me permission to tell this story.

This client is a very busy professional woman who, like most of us, habitually does a minimum of three things at once, always looking ahead to what’s next.  Not surprisingly she was on the verge of burnout.  I recommended that she experiment with doing one thing at a time,  starting with her drive home from our appointment…no radio, talking on her cell phone, or engaging in any other distraction from driving.  When she arrived home she called my office.  The tone of her message was clearly agitated. She said she had done what I suggested, but was confused. “If I’m not listening to the radio, or talking on the phone while I’m driving, what am I supposed to be doing?”

My response: “Enjoying the journey.”

Namaste

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25 responses to “Multitasking is Overrated

  1. I so needed this. I have been struggling with too multi-tasking and lack of focus for the last month. I can’t seem to get anything done and I feel overwhelmed. I have learned that I do much better when I slow things down and try to do one thing at a time, but I had completely forgotten that. This post reminded me that I can give myself permission to take it slow in order to speed things up by getting something accomplished. Thank you!

    • Dear Ladybug,

      Do I have permission to borrow your quote “I can give myself permission to take it slow in order to speed things up by getting something accomplished.”? Astute observation. Thanks for sharing.

      • Of course you can use my quote. Actually, I feel honored. How nice! Maybe I will actually read it in a book written by a very brilliant and special woman one day! 🙂

      • Maybe you will…and be given credit for it too!

  2. I have been aware for sometime of the studies that show the negative effects of multitasking, and have observed what happens to myself and others at work. They have proven that each time you are pulled away from a task to work on another it takes you longer to engage in the original task and mistakes begin to happen. Your blog brought my awareness of multitasking on a personal level – I can’t even think of just having a cup of coffee. Drinking a cup of coffee with a good book or the start of a work day makes a joyful moment. However, I will give it a try — just need to prepare for the oneness of the moment. As for the internet and FB – the list is long to begin one task at a time. Good Blog Gail

    • Today, I had the opportunity to view staying with the one task. We had flu shots today at my company and because of an error of one nurse over 200 employees had to have their shot again. The nurse who made the error was gone, leaving it all to one nurse. She never paniced she stayed the course and gave each person the time they needed. I complimented her, her response , I love nursing – it was evident -she stayed with one person at a time and ever got wrapped up into the mistake and it was evident in the calmness of the long waits/ A great example of doing just one thing at a time.

      • It is amazing how when we stay focused on doing one thing at a time we do remain calm and the calmness effects others and influences them to remain calm. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I heard that interview and was impressed by the observation that creativity only flourishes within the boundaries of limitation, which by the way is on of the principles we learn on our mats in yoga. Sooo glad you caught that and related it to the blog topic. Now the challenge for all of us is to apply this to our daily lives off the mat. Thanks for sharing.

  4. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Jon Stewart said people often think that The Daily Show writing team just sit around and make jokes. However, they must adhere to a very strict day, and by doing so, they can have the freedom to improvise: He said, “I’m a real believer that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. With freedom, you don’t know what to do with yourself, but when you have a structure, then you can improvise often and feel confident enough to come back that.”

    I thought about it in relation to your blog topic. We are all free to do a million different things every day. By “limiting” ourselves to do one thing at a time, we actually get the “freedom” to express our creativity even more, especially on those tasks that we would ordinarily find very mundane.

  5. I think that this is an important observation…noticing that when you do one thing at a time and give it your full attention, regardless of the outcome you feel good about giving it your all. That’s the point exactly. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Dear Dr. Parker
    Doing one thing at a time works for me because when I don’t I find that I forget things and errors occur. I agree with you multitasking is overrated. I am not a pro at it yet but when I decide to give 100% to something I am usually very pleased with the outcome and in the event things don’t go my way at least I can honestly say that I gave it my all!

  7. Let me know how it goes. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jason Parker Johnson

    I think I’ll give it a shot. It used to be much easier to just do one thing at a time but since the laptop has become a permanent fixture in my lap when I’m at home, i find it harder to focus on one thing due to the informational overload.

  9. WOW! what a wonderful idea. Ironically, when I first began to read your blog, I could not fully focus and I realized it was because, I was trying to listen to the news on the TV. When I finally decided to turn the TV off, I was able to read and fully embrace your message…how simple was that 🙂 Great advice, I’ll continue to use it! Tanya

    • I love that you tried the experiment, just reading while you were reading, and discovered how much easier it was to concentrate. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I am so happy to hear that you actually tried the experiment of doing one thing at a time. It is so instructive when you do it intentionally. When I began the practice I started by turning off my car radio as you did, and just driving. I loved it. Like you I paid more attention to what was actually happening in the present moment with no distraction. It’s so interesting that practicing single mindedness of focus off your yoga mat made for a more focused practice on your yoga mat. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Hi Gail,
    Thank you, once again, for a great blog! This month’s blog really hit home as multitasking is something that I have to work very hard at to refrain from doing. At my work it is often unavoidable, but at home I have to constantly remind myself to finish one task before I begin another. I’m always surprised by how much more I am able to accomplish when I keep focused and do one thing at a time. I tried your experiment this morning on my drive to work…just driving, no music and not even a sip of my Starbuck’s coffee. A couple of miles down the road I was pleasantly surprised by the rhythm of the rain as it steadily fell on the windshield, by the hum of the tires as they clipped along the pavement (even when they hit bumps!) and the soft whine of the engine when I stopped at a light. All these sounds I never hear when I play the radio or a CD. I repeated the experiment on my way home. Even my yoga practice today was more focused and enjoyable by keeping my mind on the mat. Thank you for sharing these wise words of wisdom!
    With gratitude,
    Sarah

  12. Hi Gail! I learned a few years ago that I was terrible at multi-tasking. I am definitely a to-do list type of girl. Sometimes at work I’m forced to multi-task and I manage to get things done, but when I’m in control of my responsibilities I make a daily list and start at the top and work my way down. Its my goal everyday to complete everything on my list, things often carryover until the next day, but they go to the top of the list and I always get them done. I am very organized when I work like this! I haven’t tried driving with no radio as I’m a sirius radio fan and feel this is my way of catching up with the world, but I may try it one day!
    I enjoy your blog;->!

    • Hi Saunya. The thing that is most amazing to me was to learn that the brain just doesn’t function optimally when we are trying to do more than one thing at a time..it’s not a character flaw, we’re just not wired to be as efficient when we are multitasking even though we believe we are accomplishing more. As a rule I listen to my radio in the car too but when I don’t it’s really peaceful. Try it you might like it too. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I think that’s a wonderful way to think about our full presence. There is nothing quite as supportive as some one else’s undivided attention. It truly is a gift. Thanks for your presence.

  14. Gail,

    It’s fairly easy to see that trying to devote your full attention to two tasks isn’t possible. I observed this yesterday as I watched the man driving in front of me on his cell phone not notice the green light, waver from lane to lane, and not use his turn signal. I also noticed in the voice of a colleague as I asked her a question on the phone, while the principal happened to pop onto the intercom. She sounded distracted! When I went to her room later, and shared that with her, she said, “Yeah! A million things were happening at once!” Single-minded focus is optimal! Hurray for yoga and the concept of being present! We could think of “being present” as a nice “present” for the people in our lives 🙂

  15. Thanks so much for this, Gail. I recently was invited by my Yoga instructor to attend the more advanced class and of course I was somewhat, well, intimidated. It is a very small class and I think some of these people were born in a convoluted Yoga position. I focused and concentrated and gave it my all . . and really did quite well. But, later, when Jenna called me about my experience, I confused that still . . .after all this time, my biggest challenge in being successful in Yoga is: shavasana! I suck at relaxing! THAT is where the multitasking really takes over and I fail miserably in the intent of this mental exercise. But next time I attend this class, I will apply your theory of the power of singlemindedness of purpose to. . shavasana! I’ll let you know how I do! Be well and full of peace. With grateful love, Cheryl

  16. Hi Gail:
    This is such a good idea. I’m up to stretching and growing into this challenge. My initial internal experiences will probably be very much like that of your client. Hmmmmmm, I just noticed that I am multi-tasking as I write this. It’s probably best for me to start tomorrow.

    Love,
    Melva

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