In the busyness of the world we live in, multi-tasking can become the norm. With so many distractions available to us – emails that ping, text messages that ding – it is easy to be lured into it unwittingly. How do you stave off the multi-tasking lures?
Multi-tasking gets a bad rap
Multi-tasking is getting a bad rap lately. Why? Because it is a misnomer. You actually cannot focus on many tasks simultaneously. What you actually do is shift your attention from task to task, and back again leaving small gaps of attention. I have heard it renamed “multi-shifting”.
The thing is – multitasking is bad for your health.
Increasing distraction and overwhelm
Multitasking can increase feelings of distraction and overwhelm. If this is the effect, it can be associated with raised stress levels and a corresponding increase in cortisol – the stress hormone. Operating under stress can mean that tasks are not completed or done well. A vicious cycle follows with increased levels of cortisol further impeding cognitive functioning, resulting in greater stress.
In a survey of stress and well-being in Australia, findings showed:
- in 2013, Australians reported significantly higher levels of stress and distress compared with 2012 and 2011
- significantly more Australians reported moderate to severe levels of distress in 2013 compared with findings of 2012
- younger adults continued to report much higher levels of stress and distress compared with older Australians
(Casey, 2013, p. 4)
Worse for women
This is most concerning to women who are seen to have a stronger propensity for multitasking than men. One study showed:
women multitask 10 hours more per week than men and that engaging in multitasking activities increases stress, negative emotions, and perceived work-life conflict
(Offer & Schneider, 2011 as cited in Cabrera, 2016).
Additionally, research shows that women worry more and are twice as likely to suffer anxiety than men. This is put down to structural and chemical differences between the brains of men and women (Cabrera, 2016).
Frequency worsens the impact
It is suggested that people who are frequent multi-taskers, are actually worse at it. They take longer to switch between tasks than people who focus on one thing at a time. What results is a difficulty for them, in sorting out the irrelevant information from the relevant. They are distracted by everything. Once again, there is the tendency for a vicious cycle to develop.
Mindfulness addresses distraction
Mindfulness is incompatible with multi-tasking, as it focuses on one rather than many tasks. It has been described as “an attribute of consciousness long believed to promote well-being” (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Research shows practitioners of mindfulness have a unique quality of consciousness related to well-being and associated with greater self-awareness.
This consciousness is achieved by intentionally paying attention to the present moment. As a skill, it can be learned and practised. There are different ways of doing this, including things like:
- mindful meditation by focusing on something like your breath
- making time for focusing on specific activities
- reducing distractions eg email, phone calls while working on a task
- practising being mindful at different times eg focusing on one thing like walking, eating or driving
- being aware when distraction occurs, and bring your focus back
Awareness is the first step
These are all actions that can be implemented regularly, to become a habit. The intention is to increase your awareness of what you are doing and when you are “not doing” what you intended! I’ve heard people suggest they set a timer to mark the end of each hour. When it sounds, it brings their attention to observe what they are doing.
The first step of change is awareness. These exercises increase that awareness and have the potential to extend it to greater self-awareness that has benefits for both physical and psychological health. It requires a commitment to make the time to put in the effort to do this. The benefits are well-reported though, so it’s worth it.
Perhaps you have some mindfulness strategies you would share?
- Brown, Kirk Warren & Ryan, Richard M. 2003. The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 84(4), Apr 2003, p. 822-848.
- Cabrera, Beth. 2016. Women Need Mindfulness Even More than Men Do. Harvard Business Review. 21 June 2016.
- Casey, Lynne. 2013. Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2013. Australian Psychological Society, October 2013.