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.”