There’s a powerful urge in many of us to multitask. To balance plates. To juggle balls. To answer messages while speaking on the phone while eating while crossing the road while…
Turns out, it’s not good for us. In fact, it’s really very bad.
Complex multitasking – doing more than one task that requires our attention – keeps our fight or flight response activated, meaning we maintain a state of stress. Prolonged stress causes wear and tear on the body, including weakening our immune system, destroying cells in the parts of the brain responsible for executive function, learning and memory, and even speeding up of the aging process through the shortening of telomeres (the ‘caps’ on the ends of our chromosomes that stop them from unraveling, their length being a biological marker of age).
As Director of the UC San Diego Centre for Mindfulness Allan Goldstein says,
“the complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress-related diseases.”
The multitasking paradox
Life for many is getting faster and busier, and multitasking can seem like the only way to get things done. The problem is, it doesn’t actually help. An activated amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fight or flight, hijacks our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) so that our thinking is distorted and decision-making less effective. That’s why multitasking makes us less productive, and chronic multitaskers are actually worse at multitasking, says Dr Clifford Nass. Forget the popular view that we’re adapting to the new information age; we’re not.
And here’s the real stinger: multitasking is a myth. Our brains are not parallel but serial processors, so we literally cannot do more than one complex task at the same time. When we think we are doing several things simultaneously we are, in fact, switching our attention rapidly from one activity to another. This creates ‘attentional blinks‘, momentary losses of attention, and so in trying to do several things at once we make a dog’s dinner of everything and end up frazzled to boot.
The cure for multitasking is unitasking. Simply, only do one thing at a time. Give any single task your full attention instead of trying, and failing, to do several things at once. It doesn’t mean going slowly or ignoring competing demands; the key is efficient attention switching. If the phone rings, stop emailing and focus on the call, then switch back to the email. By giving a task our full attention, we experience better productivity, better memory, better learning, better health.
Focusing attention helps our pre-frontal cortex do its job as the brain’s control centre for memory, learning, reasoning, planning, dealing with emotions, impulse control and communication. What’s more, being singularly absorbed in the moment generates brain cells in the PFC, hippocampus (the centre for long term memory) and insular (the part of the brain responsible for awareness of our internal physical and mental states). It also stimulates telomere maintenance, slowing down the very process of aging.
Perhaps the best news is that unitasking also shrinks the amygdala. When we’re perpetually distracted, we suffer from attention deficit trait, aggravating the amygdala and activating the ‘default mode network‘, a state of worrying, mind wandering, mental chatter and negative self-judgement. The problem with this is that default mode is a risk factor in stress, anxiety, depression and alzheimers, and associated with reduced cognitive performance. We definitely want a diminutive amygdala.
We need to switch off the hyper-vigilant amygdala by moving from the default mode to the ‘attentional network’, which we do when we bring our attention to the task at hand. We already know what it feels like to focus, free from distractions. To be in the zone. In the moment. This is how we feel when we’re immersed in something enjoyable, like a hobby or compelling work. It’s pure bliss. The remedy for the amygdala’s catastrophising, therefore, is to be fully engaged with what we do.
If you’re beginning to wonder, yes, unitasking is a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice (or meditation) is when we observe our sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement, gently bringing the attention back to the experience of being in the present moment when our minds wander, which they will.
We can live mindfully throughout the day, not just in the twenty minutes set aside for meditation; we do it by approaching tasks with our full attention.
Once thought to be the preserve of an alternative minority, mindfulness has swung firmly into the mainstream with a robust empirical basis showing significant positive effects are already evident after eight weeks of meditating for a few minutes a day.
Clearly, mindfulness is not some hippy dippy bullshit. It is the antidote to stress and the cornerstone of productivity. Try unitasking, and watch the mercury dip.
Learn more about unitasking and mindfulness
Study (free via Future Learn): Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance
Read now: The health benefits of meditation and being mindful, by Dr Craig Hassed
Read later: Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
Meditation app (free): Smiling Mind
Research and resources: Centre for Mindfulness