The other day I was trying to take a work call while heating my son’s bottle. Heating a bottle is easy. I poured water into a container, pushed a few buttons on the microwave, took the container out when it beeped and put the bottle into hot water. I’ve done it hundreds of times, it takes no brain power. The call was going well, I was distracted for no more than 5 seconds total. I contributed, listened, we made an action plan and I hung up the phone. A few minutes later, I had neither a warm bottle (it was still sitting on the counter next to the hot water) nor did I have any idea what I was supposed to do after the call.
Multitasking is so enticing. Two things at once. Three things at once. All it takes is some practice and we’re more productive and more efficient. Except that the reality is the opposite – and it’s something we all need to remind ourselves all the time.
Even ‘rote’ tasks engage our brains’ working memory and when we take up that brain power, we’re limiting our ability to remember and learn anything else. Heating the bottle isn’t something I’m aware of thinking about. Nonetheless, I was accessing my memory and that stopped me from remembering the rest of what I was supposed to do. Research shows that we’re only able to deeply focus on one task at a time. More than one task and there’s exponentially less focus. Too many tasks and your brain loses the ability for deep thinking altogether – tasks take much longer and you’re likely making twice as many mistakes.
But that’s temporary, right? If I stop multitasking, my brain goes back to normal and I’m all good. Mostly. The more we multitask, the more we train our brains to jump from thing to thing and the more our brains ‘want’ to jump around. (This is especially true for adolescents, so remember that you’re setting an example, not just improving your own work, when you stop multitasking.)
If you’re used to a lot of multitasking, when you stop doing it your brain may, at first, register having to focus on one task as boring. But keep at it. Boring will change into deep focus. And deep focus is one of the central tenants behind enjoying the task at hand. Getting lost in your work, not realizing how much time has passed, really being in the moment – this is one of the bases for happiness. Research shows that when your mind drifts from the activity you’re doing, people reported being less happy than those who were focused on the task. Multitasking not only means that our focus is always shallow, but it means that our minds are always drifting away from one task or another. Multitasking, in short, means we’re less productive, less good at learning new things, remembering old things and less happy.
So the next time you’re tempted to glance at your phone during a conference, to check your email in a staff meeting or even just look for your keys while your spouse is telling you what to get at the store, don’t.
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