Girl reading and eating; Multitasking

Multitasking

Multitasking is our default behaviour and multi-tasking affects our productivity and increases stress. I really hope you’ll pay attention to the content in this article, but I’m not going to get too optimistic. Because I’m student of the science of conscious attention and I teach meditation, so I understand a little bit about the kind of things that tend to happen inside human mind and effects of multitasking on your performance.

How long can your mind focus?

In 2010 a group of researchers from Harvard got together and studied the daily thoughts of over 5,000 people from over 80 countries and one of the things that they found was shocking, that minds are actually wandering about 47% of the time. Other major finding of the study was that we are less happy when our mind is wondering than when we are focused on what’s happening in the present moment.

But mind-wandering also have a whole bunch of benefits, as it’s a huge part of how we do our creative thinking. It is where all of our planning happens, it actually seems to be a big part of how we keep a coherent sense of ourselves and who we are.  But when it comes to happiness it seems like most of that happens in the here and now, and how we handle what’s happening in the present moment.

Is pain better than being alone?

In 2014 study was conducted on group you people just like you and me to see how we handle loneliness. They were placed alone in an empty room for 15 minutes just to be with their thoughts, and then were asked to rate their experience and most of them described it boring and unpleasant.

In a later version of the same experiment to check the actual level of boredom, before people were put in the lonely room again, they were given a painful electric shock, people didn’t like painful electric shocks and confirmed that they would pay a significant amount of money to ensure that the experience never happened again. When these people were in the empty room alone to be with their thoughts, there was a button on the table and pushing that button they would receive the same painful electric shock. But pushing the button would not reduce their time in confinement, the results would really surprise and shock you.

25% of the women and 66% of the men pushed the button at least one time, many of them pushed it several times, one person who must have had a lot on his mind pushed it a hundred and ninety times in 15 minutes, it’s about once every five seconds. Why on earth would you push that button, we don’t actually know, it could be boredom or anxiety. Or it could be that sometimes-physical pain feels less painful than thinking one of the bad memories.

 One thing we do know is that for many of us, when we’re let loose in the landscape of our own minds, we discover is that it feels like a jungle in there and sometimes we’ll do almost anything we can to get out it.

Can you sit alone with multi tasking?

The philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously wrote that “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. If a couple moments inside our own mind that would have us reaching for the button, well maybe we’d agree that our conscious attention is like a precious natural resource. And like every natural resource its power is limited, there’s actually no way that we can calculate how much information the human brain can handle.

How much information our mind can process?

But one simple estimate suggests that if we were to total up all of the information we receive every second from the sensory neurons in our body sight, sound, taste of touch and smell every second your brain is being bombarded by about 11 million bits of information, but how much of that information our conscious attention can handle?  It’s about sixty bits and the other 99.999 4% of what’s happening around and inside us right now is being processed by parts of your brain that are operating largely unconsciously and all of that experience might not ever filter its way up to your conscious attention.

So, what do we do with all of that because so much of the quality of our daily life will be determined by how we invest and manage this precious resource of your conscious attention, especially now when more than ever thanks to the miracles of modern technology?

 Definition of Multitasking?

We can be texting while driving or ordering on amazon while live streaming the season finale of The Prison Break, more things than ever are contending for this precious 60-bit bandwidth. So, what do we do when multitask? We take this little conscious attention and try to spread it out among everything, so that we don’t have to miss anything. But one of the things we need to know is that we suck at multitasking.

The kind of multitasking that I just described doesn’t actually exist it’s a cognitive illusion, just like the way when we go to a movie, we know what’s happening on the screen, it’s just picture picture picture picture picture but it feels like movement and you don’t ever second-guess. In exactly the similar way when we are multitasking what’s actually happening inside our brain is that our conscious attention is ping-ponging back and forth from one thing to another again and again. And this all happens so fast that you can’t even notice it.

Now one of the things that we know is that when we engage in this kind of behaviour, psychologists call it task switching and when we do it, we’re actually worse at just about everything we do. So, we multitask to try and do more things faster and most often we tend to take more time and perform worse in the process.

Does multitasking improve our performance?

One study that literally followed people around, throughout their workday found that when we get interrupted in a task, we probably won’t return to it for an average of 23 minutes sometimes more now. We say that we multitask all the time and we are super good at it because no great surprise the people who do multitasking feel like they’re the best. But research shows that they actually tend to perform the worst. there are some really disturbing side effects to this kind of behaviour.  

We multitask to handle the stress because there is too much on our plate, but multitasking behaviour actually raises our stress levels. Because it increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bloodstream and which is hugely correlated with impulsiveness and low self-control. What we’re doing is not training our minds to spread far and wide, rather we’re training ourselves to become more distracted.

Can you stop multitasking?

I’m not going to tell you to stop multitasking because you won’t, but what you can do and what I hope you will do is consider how you want to manage and protect the precious resource of your own conscious attention. Because, we know from neuroscience that our conscious attention gives us access to three basic skills

  • Attention can help us seek out new information.
  • Attention can help us sort between streams of information that are competing for our focus.
  • And attention can help us stay with the stuff that feels important now.

 We get plenty of exercise with the seeking and the sorting just by being alive today, but the place where we struggle the most and often stumble is the skill of staying put with the stuff that’s important to us. Like you are in a conversation with someone you really care about and find yourself reaching for phone for no good reason. You know what that struggle is like.

Ways to increase focus and avoid multitasking.

Now the good news is that there are actually tons of ways that we can train the mind to sit and stay but one of my favourites and perhaps one of the oldest is the practice of mindfulness. These days mindfulness is kind of in its pop-culture moment right now and it’s on the cover of magazines, it’s in Super Bowl commercials, it’s in Fortune 500 boardrooms and all over the place.

But mindfulness is not a mystical way of being you don’t have to be a monk or a millionaire very simply mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose with an attitude of non-judgment. we’re paying attention to the present moment because we know that’s where so much of our happiness happens and when we can pay attention to the present moment on purpose then we’re becoming a little less creature of circumstance and a little bit more creatures of choice.

 When we can do all that with an attitude of non-judgment well I think that’s where something really special starts to take place because one of the side effects of having conscious attention that is inherently limited is that our minds get really good at making really quick evaluations and then jumping to the next big thing.

What’s next?

 I like it, so what’s next I don’t like it, what’s next, what’s next in the process the mind becomes a really good storyteller, and we tend to get kind of tangled up in our own stories. But in a mindfulness practice we’re trying to get more interested in what the present moment has to say for itself and a little bit less caught up.

Key to Happy and Healthy life;

“One thing at a TIME.”

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4 thoughts on “Multitasking”

  1. Captured beautifully…..

    “mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose with an attitude of non-judgment.”

    Reply

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