I often hear people bragging about being great “multitaskers.” However, for many of these so-called “multitaskers,” multitasking isn’t about doing multiple things at once; it’s about managing multiple distractions. Multitasking shatters focus and concentration. When you’re constantly doing A-B-C-D-C-A-B-C-A-D-B, you never get to enjoy and focus on A or B, let alone C or D. They may all get done, but the accomplishment is staccato and the quality is spotty. With your attention diverted to multiple things, you will tend to miss and fail to appreciate all the nuances of focused activity. Stressed out, frenetic activity, with the constant switch-switch-switch-switch, has become the norm. Just like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we boil in the stew of our own stresses, oblivious to the rising heat. Here are some questions to help you evaluate your level of multitasking:
- How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? Rested for restless?
- Do you have trouble going to sleep at night because you can’t seem to turn off your brain?
- What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Do you check your cell phone? Do you sign into Facebook?
- During the day are you constantly thinking about what you have to do next instead of what you’re doing right then?
- Do you feel overwhelmed by the pace of your day all the things you feel you need to do?
- Do you have difficulty making decisions, or having made a decision, do you have difficulty sticking to it?
- At the end of the day do you feel satisfied with what you’ve done or just exhausted?
Our technology-rich culture is an obvious suspect. The technology we’ve invited into our lives can be tyrannical. Each new device has the tendency to yell, “Hey! Over here! Look at me!” They can crowd out enjoyments in the present moment by hijacking it, by demanding we divert whatever we’re doing and pay attention to them. Technology becomes our focus and everything else becomes a distraction handled on autopilot—tasks we often dismiss as irrelevant, such as walking, driving, working, talking, or even dealing with other people. Our gadgets and devices are compelling and so user-friendly that we can develop a relationship with them to the exclusion of other people and more important tasks.
It is so easy to become enamored with all of this technology and truly believe it’s making a positive difference in your life. It’s what you want to believe, what you’ve come to believe, because if all of this stuff can’t truly make your life better, what else is there? In a technological age, knowledge is the Holy Grail of power and prestige. In an age of proximity, “getting things done” is kingly. In an instant age, time is money. This is the essence of the multitasking, overtaxed world we live in.
Through a recent technology called fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) it’s now possible to see what’s happening with the brain in real time. We have learned that our brains are able to do two things at once, but only if the functions required happen in separate parts of the brain. For example, you can read a book and hear music just fine. One part of your brain handles the visual stimuli from the book while another part of your brain processes the auditory stimuli from the music. There’s no interference. But throw in music with lyrics while you’re reading, and now the language processing parts of the brain is doing double duty. While the brain can do double duty, it cannot process the things simultaneously. Rather it switches back and forth very, very fast: words on the page to words in the music, words on the page to words in the music. Back and forth, back and forth, switch-switch-switch-switch-switch. Relaxing, right?
We can train our brains to switch faster, but the number and complexity of things we are asking our brains to switch back and forth and to and from is increasing. We keep piling on the tasks we are asking our brains to keep track of so we can have it all and do it all. We listen to the promises of how wonderful this is or how timesaving that is and add layer upon layer upon layer to our lives. When the promises are broken, we end up buried under all that stuff, resentful, over-stimulated, and tired. The more things we cram into our lives, the more ways we feel obligated to produce.
The question you need to ask yourself is this: are those honestly the values and lifestyle I want to represent, or is there more to life?
In order to help people calm their racing thoughts and appreciate engaging in a single thing, people teach something called mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “the art of being present” and is focused on the present moment. You intentionally set aside your anticipation, worry, or simple speculation about what might happen in the future; you accept being fully present in the moment. You intentionally set aside any tendency to dwell on the past, regrets, or disturbing memories; you access being fully present in the moment. Both past and future concerns can be tyrannical; both crowd out enjoyment in the present.
Observe your thoughts and behaviors over the course of a day to evaluate your current level of multitasking. If you believe your multitasking habits are becoming a deterrent to your happiness and ability to be present, it may be time for you to put yourself through a technology detox, begin a practice of mindfulness, and turn off a few switches.
Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of 28 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz’s book Hooked.