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April 20, 2021 6 min read

Multitasking is highly overrated. 

 

I know. I used to be the queen of multitasking. In my corporate career, I worked simultaneously on multiple projects, had meetings and more meetings, staff to coach and people dropping by my office all day long. So many things to do, and very high expectations for results. 

 

I developed a really weird talent to deal with multiple interruptions to my work:  I could carry on a conversation with someone who dropped by my office while composing and continuing to type an email or document at the same time - without looking at my computer.  

 

And I also used to be able to think about 3 or 4 things at once, in layers. One day, I conceptually saw these layers of thought floating one over the over in my mind. It was one of those eye-opening moments, a little freaky even.  

 

Maximum multitasking was my brain’s way of dealing with the massive work load. Or so I thought.

 

Oh, sure, I was really good at my job and highly productive. But what do you end up with? You get things done, for sure. But for me, the results also included high levels of stress, a constant sense of overwhelm and fatigue, very little satisfaction and a lot of lost time. Losing time and focus switching from task to task meant it took me longer to accomplish what I wanted to do, so that meant longer work days.

 

Multitasking is different for each of us. For me, it was typical work-place multitasking (although probably more intense than most). These days, work-place multitasking may be different if you’ve moved from an office to working from home, juggling your work with everything else that’s going on in your home. For students, multitasking includes not just going to class (possibly on-screen) and studying, it includes emailing, texting, surfing social media channels and carrying on virtual conversations all at the same time. We even multitask in the car, carrying on a conversation while driving, when a critical moment of distraction could be very dangerous.

 

Can our brains really do two things at once? It turns out that multitasking is a myth.  

 

We are not really doing several things at the same time (except perhaps for my weird typing/composing/conversation talent) - our brains are only wired to do one thing at a time. What we are actually doing when we “multitask” is constantly switching our attention from one thing to the next, and back again.  

 

We’ve all got so much going on, and multiple screens at hand make switching between projects, emails, social media, texts and virtual conversations way too easy.

  

Easy - and very detrimental to our productivity and our brain function.  It's been scientifically proven.  Studies show that switching our attention from task to task can lower IQ, shrink the grey matter, lower our productivity by 40% and increase stress. Students constantly switching from one thing to the next, especially in class and while doing homework, results in lower academic performance. In fact, only 2.5% of people actually perform better when they multi-task, they are the “supertaskers”. And as we get older, our brain’s ability to switch from task to task efficiently decreases.

 

Stress goes up, performance goes down. So why would we want to multi-task? 

 

The day I saw the layers of thoughts in my mind, and took stock of all the stress I was living with as a result of my “multitasking”, I knew I needed to change something. I needed to find a better way to work, a lot less stress, more joy, a greater sense of fulfillment. 

 

For me, meditation and mindfulness were the pathway to that better quality of life. And the solution to being more focused and less distracted in my work. It’s not like I suddenly knew that I needed to practice meditation to be a focused uni-tasker. It’s more like I knew I needed to change the way I was living my life and I stumbled upon meditation and yoga, which lead me to mindfulness. All of which lead me to more joy, peace, clarity, creativity, satisfaction. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was the journey. And looking back, I can see how much mindfulness has helped me transform the way I live and the way I work.  

 

Mindfulness is the exact opposite of multitasking. Mindfulness trains us to choose what we want to focus on. It trains our minds to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, deliberately, and not allowing your attention to wander. Clinical studies that measure the brains (with fMRI) of people before and after 8 weeks of mindfulness training indicate that the brain’s grey matter actually increases (as opposed to multitasking brains). Scientists call this “neuroplasticity”. The studies also indicate that mindfulness improves learning and memory, reduce stress and anxiety.

 

These days, I still find myself getting distracted and often leave something I’m in the middle of doing. And some times I go back to my old multitasking habits. But now, at least, I’m very conscious of it. I am better able to focus on one project at a time, give my full attention.  And I'm a whole lot less stressed and I find much more joy and a greater sense of accomplishment in my work. 


Here are 7 MINDFULNESS TIPS TO HELP YOU UNI-TASK (from the former queen of multitasking). So that you can get more done, stress less, and find more joy in your job.

 

1. Find stillness for a few minutes of mindfulness meditation - Mindfulness is mind training. And a simple mindfulness meditation such as breath awareness is a great way to train your brain daily. It’s the easiest meditation I know. Begin with just 10 minutes a day. Sitting quietly with your eyes closed, focus your attention on the flow of your breath, in and out. Notice all the sensations as you inhale and exhale through your nose.  Follow the flow of your breath through your body, and notice the rise and fall of your chest and belly. Just notice. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. Click here to learn more about mindfulness of breath and how to get started with meditation.

And even if you do have to multitask some days to get things done, a study has shown that meditation before you begin work can reduce the stress, improve memory and improve the performance. Meditation helps you focus longer, so you spend more time on the tasks and less time on switching.

 

2. Choose one thing…and give it your undivided attention - There will always be distractions and interruptions to whatever you are doing, and you likely will always have to do some “multitasking” to get things done. But at least once a day, allow yourself to uni-task. Look at all the things on your to-do list and choose one to do first, give it your full attention, and complete it. Notice how you feel once it’s complete. If you can’t finish it, at least give yourself a specific amount of time to focus on just that one task.

 

3. Clear your desk - Clutter = distraction. So remove this potential for distraction, clear away clutter, mess, piles of papers and books from your desk and your work area.  Ahhh...sigh of relief...  You will immediately feel fresher, lighter and more free. 

 

4. Switch OFF - Our phones are probably our biggest source of distraction, as we constantly check emails, texts, social media. So consider switching it off while you are working. Or at least switch off the notifications and leave it out of reach. 

 

5. Just listen - Don’t do what I used to do and try to do something else while someone is talking to you. It’s not good. Stop what you’re doing and give that person your full attention, even if they interrupt your work. You will better hear what they are saying, and they will feel better for being heard. I know…it’s annoying to be interrupted when you’re in the middle of something, you lose your focus. But the other person will appreciate it, and you’ll get more from the exchange.

 

6. Just breathe - Your breath is constant, always there for you, an anchor to the present moment. Just notice it, the inhales and the exhales, as it flows through your nostrils, in and out of your body. If you feel scattered, frazzled, unfocused…just come back to your breath for a moment of calm.

 

7. Give yourself a break - Literally and figuratively. First, sometimes you just need to take a break in your day to better focus. Step outside for a few minutes, and notice the light, the sounds, the colours, the scents, notice the temperature, and how the air feels on your skin, in your nostrils as you breathe.  Take in the fresh air. And get back to work with more clarity. Second, cultivate kindness to yourself.  Whenever you feel frustrated, irritated, overwhelmed or overworked, remind yourself how awesome you are, what a great job you are doing. And never judge yourself if something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to go.  

 

HUM RESOURCES TO BRING MORE MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR LIFE:

What Exactly is Mindfulness? Part 1

What Exactly is Mindfulness?  And how do I practice it? Part 2

See Things Differently: 7 Fun Ways to Practice Mindfulness

5 Easy Meditations and How to Get Started

How to Bring Mindfulness to Any Yoga Practice

 

 


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