The Downside of Multitasking: The Benefits of Being Present

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We are living in the age of multi-tasking, a practice so pervasive it has permeated the home, the workplace and even childhood.

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Multi-tasking has cast its spell over us, capturing and dividing our attention, and hypnotizing us into a powerful trance. Consider it a mutant kind of meditation — the "anti-meditation."

Multi-tasking has been embraced as an ordinary cultural ritual, much like the morning cup of coffee, engulfing our most mundane interactions like walking down the street or driving the car, hooked up to an iPod, a cell phone or a Blackberry. In a society where the pressure is to do more, more, more, it's almost wasteful to consider just doing one thing at a time.

Pressure abounds everywhere. In the workplace, multi-tasking is expected, if not demanded, because bosses and co-workers have been indoctrinated to believe that doing more things at once will result in higher productivity. Sadly, this is an erroneous belief. Increasingly, recent studies cited on NPR and in Scientific American1 have shown that when trying to multi-task, both productivity and quality suffer. A study by David Meyer of the University of Michigan concluded that performance drops off when people try to accomplish more than one task at a time. Students volunteers were asked to switch back and forth between different types of arithmetic problems. "If they had to switch rapidly, from multiplication to division, it took them 'quite a bit' longer to finish, Meyer said."2

Recent studies done by the Federal Aviation Commission in coordination with the University of Michigan have also shown that people are actually less productive when they multi-task. "During the study, subjects at several different age levels, including one as young as twelve years old, were forced to switch back and forth between a specified number of tasks. It was found that in every single case, no matter what the task was and whether it was simple or complicated, time was always lost in switching between tasks. Also, as the complexity of the tasks grew, the time lost in switching between them became greater."3

Professor Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University found there is a drop-off in efficiency even when different parts of the brain are used for different tasks. "Just used a brain-imaging machine to see what part of the brain that test subjects used when they listened to complicated sentences while simultaneously looking at a geometric object they were told to mentally rotate. Just had expected that the different parts of the brain wouldn't be affected by what the other part was working on. 0r, he thought, each part might have to work harder to complete its task. Instead, it turned out that both parts of the brain worked less efficiently, meaning that less brainpower in total was directed at both tasks than would have been used if only one task were attempted at a time."4

the-downside-of-multi-tasking-small-1When Is A Human Like A Computer?

Multi-tasking is an outgrowth of our computer and media-generated era. As computers and electronic devices have become higher powered and more sophisticated, the features they offer have grown in number and complexity. A cell phone was initially just that — a mobile phone. But in time, it became a camera, a video camera, an iPod facsimile, a GPS device, a handheld computer, and all kinds of other things. We seem to have a fixation in our culture with "more is better." But we're not so good at figuring out "how much is enough?"

As our devices have become more complex and able to do more things in one package, we have transferred this concept onto the human being. Rather than having a machine be truly an accessory to help humans be human, the human has become an accessory to the machine, and now we think humans are supposed to function the same way the machine does. If a computer can have five different windows open running five different kinds of software, why can't the human answer e-mail, talk on the phone with a colleague, make a list of groceries to pick up after work, listen to music, and work on a presentation?

Multi-tasking is defined by Wikipedia as "the colloquial term for a human being's handling of simultaneous tasks." Multi-tasking is the act of engaging in multiple tasks all at the same time. We have come to believe, that like a computer, we can open multiple "windows" and manage to process all of them simultaneously, increasing productivity without forfeiting quality. I found a great definition of multi-tasking by Walter Kirn in article for The Atlantic.com, "The Autumn of the Multi-tasker."

"Multi-tasking, a definition: The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.'"

Basing our model of the human mind and its capabilities on the computer provides faulty logic. The human mind is not a computer. Even when we appear to be multi-processing three simultaneous tasks, in actuality we are not. What we are doing is more akin to channel surfing — directing our focus to one activity, then another for a very short interval of time. So, rather than simultaneously focusing on the Red Sox game, the newspaper we are reading and the phone call we are engaged in, we focus on the Red Sox game for about 3 seconds, switch over to the newspaper for a 3 second snapshot, and then bring our focus to the person on the other end of the phone...before going through that loop all over again.

the-downside-of-multi-tasking-small-2Multi-Tasking Just Feels Bad!

Though it may be politically incorrect to admit this, multi-tasking has never really been my cup of tea. Perhaps, it's because when I have attempted to do anything that uses my brain in more than one way at a time, it actually hurts. Reading the newspaper while watching a muted TV screen actually feels bad to me — like my brain is frying. Maybe it's just the way I am wired; multi-tasking physically hurts and feels stressful. Like the laboratory rat that goes the other way when encountering an electric shock, I have tried to avoid situations where I might be asked, never mind expected, to multi-task.

In addition to hurting my brain, multi-tasking also feels bad at a deeper level. I have worked for years to be present mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. And splitting my attention in multiple directions just doesn't feel right. If I am talking on the phone, I enjoy feeling the energy exchange with the other person. I like to be fully present to myself and to them. And if I am sharing my attention with the dishes in the sink, I am not fully present to anyone really. When I write, I go into a deep internal space, and that feels really good too. I feel creative. I feel connected. Why on earth would I want to disrupt that space to do something else? What happened to the value of "being here now?"

Maybe I'm just particularly sensitive to the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When we endure "long-term stress," curiously defined as stress lasting more than 15 minutes, our bodies are wired to produce cortisol to make us hypervigilant and mobilized to cope with stress and emergencies. The origins date back to our hunter-gather forefathers, who faced physical stressors like starvation, illness and critical injury.

To keep us alive, and maximize our chances of making it through a crisis, cortisol begins to break down non-essential organs and tissues to feed vital organs. Breaking down muscles, joints and bones, allows us to maintain the nervous system and vital organs. High levels of cortisol can be toxic to brain cells, clog arteries, promote heart disease and high blood pressure and contribute to obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.5

Oxytocin, best known as the hormone nursing mothers secrete as they nurse their babies, has been found to be an anti-stress hormone that counters the effects of cortisol. And isn't it interesting that it is produced during meditation, worshipping, emotionally supportive interchange and caring for a pet, as well as nursing a baby! Sounds like a case to "be here now!"

Multi-Tasking Our Kids

What I find particularly scary is the media driven, multi-tasking environment that children today are growing up with. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds," children lead "media saturated lives," spending nearly 6 1/2 hours each day using media. Because they spend 26% of their time using two or more media simultaneously, a phenomenon the study calls "media multi-tasking," the kids are actually exposed to 8 1/2 hours of media messages! A bigger bang for the media buck or more sound bites for the media minute, perhaps. But not a good way to nurture or relax the developing mind!

These practices develop bad habits, and normalize a kind of isolation where media are substituted for face-to-face relating. Studying quietly at a desk or table produces deeper learning and better retention than studying for a test while watching TV. Sitting down for dinner with one’s family or friends and talking about each person's day creates a kind of connection that dinner with the Internet just can't match. Kids are taught to live in their heads, rather than their bodies, as sedentary media replace playing soccer in the driveway with a friend or hitting some baseballs in the backyard. When being hooked up to some electronic device becomes the norm, kids can't even just hang out with one another uninterrupted by a ringing cell phone or a blaring iPod. Giving one's undivided attention to another person or an important task becomes a foreign experience.

Anthropologist Elinor Ochs at UCLA is concerned about the social consequences of this trend among young people today. She took information over a 4-year period of time from 35 Los Angeles families and compared it to data she collected 20 years ago. Her data revealed some disturbing social trends as a result of multi-tasking: "Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication — facial expressions, body language — that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and create bonds. What happens...as we replace side-by-side and eye-to-eye human connections with quick, disembodied, e-exchanges?"

"The problem is what you are not doing if the electronic movement grows too large...It's not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it's what you are not doing that's going to rot your life."

The consequences are fairly dire. As journalist Claudia Wallis notes in her Time magazine article, "The Multi-tasking Generation," "The problem is what you are not doing if the electronic movement grows too large...It's not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it's what you are not doing that's going to rot your life."6

Taken to its full extreme, the multi-media lifestyle creates a pseudo-ADD. How we use our time, our bodies and minds wires in neural pathways that influence our ways of living and being for the duration of our lives.

I, for one, am an advocate of slowing down, unplugging (or not plugging in at all), and taking the time just to breathe, live, be, relate and simply be a human being. Are we really doing our children a service by teaching them the dysfunctional skills that may help them fit into today's workplace, but will erode their health and never give them the foundation for a truly high quality inner and relational life? Maybe it's time to bring yoga and meditation classes into the schools, along with emotional literacy and social intelligence curriculum. Don't our children deserve the chance to learn what it feels like to "be here now?"

I hope through my choices and my personal example, I can provide even one small window into the possibility that doing just one thing at a time, being present in the moment with oneself and with others, is actually a pretty meaningful and healthy way to live.

NOTES

  1. "The Thief of Time" on http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/aug/multitasking/080601multitasking.html and "Scientific American Mind: The Limits of Multi-Tasking" on http://www.sciammind.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=000AFFBA-1A95-1196-906983414B7F0000
  2. "The Thief of Time" on http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/aug/multitasking/080601multitasking.html
  3. From "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" by Joshua S. Rubinsten, David E. Meyers and Jeffrey E. Evans. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 27 (201). 24 Mar 2006 http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/xhp274763.pdf
  4. "The Thief of Time" on http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/aug/multitasking/080601multitasking.html
  5. "Love and Fear" by Marnia Robinson, published in her Reuniting E-Newsletter.
  6. "The Multi-tasking Generation." Time 167.13 27 March 2006 http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1174696,00.html

Linda Marks, MSM has been a body psychotherapist, working with individuals, couples and groups for more than 22 years. She is the mother of a middle school-age son, who takes time out to reflect, write and go to the gym daily. She is the author of Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart (Knowledge Systems, Inc, 1989) and Healing the War Between the Genders: The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship (HeartPower Press, 2004). You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or http://www.healingheartpower.com or (617) 965-7846.

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