You have heard it before. “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” We tend to think busy people are super-organized, more ‘on their game’ and that they can ‘multi-task’ better than the rest of us. You may in fact, be one of those super multi-taskers that others depend on to complete a long list of tasks in half the time of most people. Many of us are proud to be successful multi-taskers. While we are getting it all done, though have we considered the potential cost to our mental health?
There are number of books explaining why the concept of ‘multi-tasking’ is really a myth. In reality, our brains do everything in a linear fashion, not simultaneously. Neuroscience research has shown us that we do one thing at a time, but very fast. What we are actually doing is switching back between various tasks, seemingly at light speed. From the outside it may look like we are doing several things at once, but on the inside we are exhausting our brains through this repetitive ‘start-stop-switch-start’ activity over and over. Thus, multi-tasking is real stress masked as productivity. You do not have to look far to read about the extreme impact extended stress has on our overall health.
A lifelong habit of multi-tasking can end up putting in jeopardy our abilities to do simple things. In their Brain and Spine series, the Cleveland Clinic describes the extreme negative impact this can have on our ability to pay attention and on our ability to learn. These two inextricably connected. We must pay attention to be able to focus and if we do not focus, we cannot learn. Cleveland Clinic points to studies tracking the “multi-tasking” with technology such as emails, texting and listening to music. In these studies, negative outcomes were demonstrated on studying, homework learning and overall grades.
Those studies looked at younger, school-aged people but consider the long-term outcomes of getting positive reinforcement for this “skill” of multi-tasking. If we learn it from an early age, where does that leave us later in life?
It is almost as if, through constant multi-tasking, we have inadvertently set ourselves up to begin losing critical attention and learning skills in midlife. How do we un-do what multi-tasking has done over the years? One answer may indeed be the polar opposite of multi-tasking: Mindfulness. We have seen the teachings on Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn spread like wildfire in the last fifteen years. Being mindful is the ability to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness has been the basis for improved learning in classrooms, better productivity in the workplace, greater individual well-being, more connected relationships and improved physical health. In the coming weeks this article will re-visit, in detail, some of the basics of Mindfulness. Perhaps Mindfulness is the antidote to multi-tasking that we all need.
Andrea Mory is a human resources and management professional who resides in North Texas. She has collaborated across Texoma over the last 20 years with mental health providers and employers to develop training and education programs related to behavioral health. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.