I’m sitting at my desk with my phone on speaker mode. This allows me to participate in this conference call but leaves my hands free to type away on my keyboard. That, in turn, enables me to take care of all manner of business from booking Christmas flights to Miami to checking stats on my football pool to ordering a new coffeemaker. I am a master multitasker!
Or, not so much. Turns out I missed half of what each person had to say on the call and added no comments of my own since I was only partially listening. I ordered the wrong carafe for the coffeemaker because I wasn’t paying full attention to that chore either. As for the tickets? Hopefully, I’ll end up in Miami, not Minsk.
What’s behind this drive to tackle multiple tasks simultaneously? The obvious answer is that it feels good to get stuff done. But it turns out that a sense of accomplishment isn’t the true driver of this borderline manic behavior. The culprit is actually the rush we experience from encountering anything new, whether that be an incoming call, an unread email or a Facebook notification.When I answer emails while eating lunch at my favorite sushi spot, I wolf down my makis without appreciating the freshness of the fish or the artfulness of the chef.
The rush is real: Research shows that for most of us, the underlying attraction to multitasking is all about dopamine, the neurochemical that’s released when our brain is stimulated. Dopamine, aka the happy hormone, is the same chemical that spikes in reaction to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. It’s involved in the frontal cortex of our brains where executive functions such as paying attention (ahem, or not) reside.
To one degree or another, we’re all addicted to novelty, and multitasking is a great way to get a quick fix. But don’t let that dopamine rush trick you into thinking you’re being effective. On the contrary, studies have found both the quality of our efforts and the time it takes to get the job done are adversely affected by doing more than one thing at a time.
In addition, multitasking also triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline, which leads to short-term memory loss and long-term negative effects on our overall health. The combo platter of dopamine and adrenaline saps us of our ability to remember what little information we manage to take in when we’re doing too many things at once. We simply can’t process it all.
The notion that I must accomplish as much as possible every day has driven me to a true state of distraction. When I answer emails while eating lunch at my favorite sushi spot, I wolf down my makis without appreciating the freshness of the fish or the artfulness of the chef. When I return my mother-in-law’s call while walking my dog in Riverside Park, I miss spotting the magnificent red-tail hawk perched in the tree and take no notice of the beautiful breeze on my skin.
Multitasking means I’m constantly refocusing my attention, which actually short-circuits the concentration that’s necessary not just to complete a task but do it well. I even multitask my leisure pursuits. For example, I’ve developed a habit of reading the newspaper while watching TV, telling myself I can combine two activities I enjoy and therefore fit both into my day. The problem is I don’t comprehend the articles and can’t recall the plot of the show I watched, even the very next morning.
Who says we must cram each day with accomplishment? My new mission is to devote a more singular focus to the task at hand, whether that’s writing an essay (without checking social media until I’m done) or watching The Good Wife (without reading the Style section). As I see it, the challenge is to wrest control of my attention by denying admission to the distractions that tempt me.
Here’s my game plan for fostering a depth-over-breadth approach to a richer, more productive life (with thanks to Devora Zack, author of Singletasking: Get More Done – One Thing at a Time):
- I will choose and commit. I will decide what I’m going to focus on for a given chunk of time (that could mean 30 minutes to stretch and foam-roll or a couple of hours to reorganize my closet) and give myself fully to that task alone.
- I will take notes, not breaks. Rather than stop what I’m doing every time a new idea pops into my head, I will take ten seconds to jot it down so I can return to it once I’m done with my present task.
- I will create a quiet zone. Unless I’m expecting a truly important notification, I will turn off email and text alerts when I’m working (or following a recipe or deciphering instructions on how to put together my new coffeemaker). When I’m walking my dog, I will allow my senses to be fully attuned to the outdoors by putting my phone on silent or, better yet, leaving it home.
- I will build daydream breaks into my day. With the goal of increasing my attention span, I will allow my mind to wander or snooze for at least a few minutes a day. With any luck, I’ll be able to break the cycle of distraction by reacquainting myself with how it feels to be truly alone with my thoughts.
If this plans works, my new mantra just might become “One task at a time.”