There is a good chance that at some point while you are reading this post, you will be tempted to do something else at the same time. Don’t worry, I won’t take it personally. I won’t think badly of you and I won’t even be particularly surprised. I am currently talking to my housemate whilst researching for this post and typing.
We’re all so busy these days. We work (while eating), we exercise (while watching the news), we try to eat well (which requires planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning), we socialise in person and via a variety of devices (phone, email, text, Skype). We may think we are achieving more, however there is a growing number of articles suggesting and proving that multitasking makes us less efficient, less effective, more stressed and more likely to make mistakes.
In our race to fit it all in, it seems that we’ve forgotten how to focus on one task, one activity, one experience at a time. Just as silence is becoming a lost art, tragically absorbed into the soundtrack and audible rhythm of a world that’s becoming increasingly louder, focusing our attention on one activity is also falling by the wayside of our lives.
In my research, I found that there are four main reasons people engage in multitasking:
- people don’t realise and are not aware of the research on how inefficient it is (I mean are you really listening to your lecture with those 30 online clothes store tabs open?) (Wallis 2009)
- we have too much to do (Elephant Journal 2014)
- we are not sufficiently interested or engaged in what we are doing
- we fill uncomfortable in the silence/loneliness/etc
After learning more about multitasking this week, it got me to thinking… Why do we feel the need to fill the space? Is there a way in which we can engage in one task at a time, or sit in stillness for a moment without the need to check Facebook, listen to the radio? This is where mindfulness comes in, a practice I have recently been learning about (read more here).
An experiment conducted by Levy, Wobbrock, Kaszniak and Ostergren looked specifically at the effects of mindfulness training on multitasking behavior of knowledge workers in high stress environments. They found that when asked to do multiple tasks in a short amount of time, those who had been trained in mindfulness, compared to control groups, were able to maintain more focus on each task and had better memory for work details. They were also less negative about the experience and reported greater awareness and attention. In short, they were able to perform multiple tasks more mindfully.
If you are familiar with mindfulness practices, this makes sense. One of things developed in mindfulness training is to become more aware of your attention and increase your ability to choose your focus. If we can train ourselves to have more awareness and control over our attention, it makes sense that we would be better equipped to deal with a demanding work environment or studying at university.
Shifting now to third reason why people are tempted to multitask: When they are so uninspired by what they are doing, they consciously or subconsciously look for something else to think about or do for entertainment. According to Gallop’s 2011-2012 study of employees, 70 percent of Americans are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their work. As noted in the report, there is significant evidence that disengaged workers are less productive, make more mistakes, and can be more costly to employers in terms of absenteeism and sick leave. It also makes university a lot harder and wastes a lot of time.
A study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior demonstrates mindfulness training can help improve employee attitudes towards work and specifically increase engagement. Again, this makes sense. One of the basic methods of mindfulness training involves paying attention to your breath with alertness, relaxation, and a sense of curiosity. If you can train your mind to be comfortable and curious attending to your breath, it stands to reason that you could choose to apply that same orientation towards any task at hand. It does take practice though!
Let’s say you are faced with a massive essay to write. If your mind starts to look for more interesting things to do, it is going to take you longer and you will likely make mistakes. If you could look at this task with a calm, clear, present and engaged mind, you will be more efficient and effective and you might even find some enjoyment in the process (lol).
I don’t want to miss a single moment. This life passes by quickly, and while not every moment is beautiful from bliss, every moment is beautiful because it’s a moment that I’m here. Multi-tasking, while sometime essential, is more often a choice, a choice that dilutes the moment and causes us to miss out on the windows of beauty that spread out before us like country road. Mindfulness isn’t just something you practice once a day for half an hour; it’s a way of life. It’s about being mindful of each moment:
Focus on driving when you’re driving.
Focus on eating when you’re eating.
Focus on your lecture. (Difficult).
Focus on your friend when you’re talking with a friend.
One task at a time.
Wallis, C, 2010, The impacts of media multitasking on children’s learning and development: Report from a research seminar, New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop