On Labor Day, I sprained my ankle trail running which required me to be on crutches for several days and in a brace with limited mobility for three weeks. During that time, I noticed something. I felt significantly calmer. I felt grounded. I felt a sense of inner peace at a time when things around me were anything but peaceful. Once the brace came off and my mobility improved I noticed an increase in stress and anxiety. As I reflected on this shift, the only thing different was that while I was injured I was unable to multitask; I had to focus on one thing at a time so as to not re-injure myself and well, to stay upright. My lesson? Multitasking doesn’t work for me. As a therapist, I have known for years that our brains don’t actually multitask and that attempting to do so leads to lower productivity and higher stress. And yet as someone who is still working on saying “no” more often (i.e., someone who takes on too much), multitasking was my way of getting it all done - or so I thought.
Multitasking is a myth. Studies have shown that our brains are not actually able to do more than one thing at a time. What happens is that our brain rapidly switches back and forth between tasks. We end up fractioning our attention into smaller pieces and thus not being able to fully engage with any one task.
In this video, McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin is cited as addressing the myth of multitasking, sharing that not only is there no such thing but also that there is a neurobiological cost to attempts at it. When we attempt to multitask (something that really isn’t possible), we eventually feel tired and can’t focus, or at least not focus as well thus interrupting our productivity. To this I would add, attempts at multitasking creates stress and in some cases anxiety. In attempt to get everything done, often more tasks than we have time to actually do, we try multitasking to fit it all in leading to lower productivity, fatigue, and higher stress.
Don’t get me wrong, saying “no” is tough work. I’m thinking of all of you mom’s out there trying to do the intense number of things requested of you in a day. How do we say “no” to real-life demands? We get clear on who and how we want to be. We identify what is essential. We prioritize. We get focused on those priorities and say “no” to everything else. We learn to deal with other people’s responses to our “no”. We learn to identify the tradeoffs in our choices (i.e., when we say “yes” to something we say “no” to something else), using that information as a factor in identifying our priorities and choices. And we learn how to deal with the disappointment that we can’t have it all. As Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” states: “If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.” I have found the more effective I am at these strategies, the less I feel disappointed about what I can’t have or do and the more I feel connected and joyful about what I am doing.
Check out this article for additional information on the myth of multitasking and for ideas on how to shift away from it. My favorite suggestion is the 20 minute rule: give your full attention to something for 20 minutes without distraction before switching to another task. That is how I wrote this post and wow, was it effective!
Here are some additional articles I found interesting and helpful in support of shifting away from multitasking and towards single-focused tasks.
The Myth of Multitasking: The ultimate guide to getting more done by doing less
Multitasking: Switching costs: Subtle "switching" costs cut efficiency, raise risk.
(This article cites research from the American Psychological Association)
Why Multitasking Is a Myth That's Breaking Your Brain and Wasting Your Time: You might think you're a great multitasker, but you're not. There's no such thing.
The Myth of Multitasking: Think you can multitask well? Think again.