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The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

    There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” ~ Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, April 1747

    Everybody I know has too much to do and too little time to get it done. Overstuffed schedules and overlong to-do lists mean many people live those “lives of quiet desperation” where at any given time we’re trying to do several things at once. The infamous ability to multitask.

    Sure, I can cook dinner and help the kids with their homework.

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    I can read a magazine and eat dinner while watching the TV shows I’ve recorded on my DVR.

    I can reply to text messages while I drive? (Wait, no I can’t. That’s illegal.) But I can do it at the dinner table.

    I can monitor emails during that business meeting.

    When tasks-to-be-done exceed time-in-the-day, it seems reasonable and efficient to double up on activities. It’s the only way to get it all done, right?

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    Right?

    Maybe not.

    Human multitasking, meaning the ability to do more than one task simultaneously, is a myth. Don’t take my word for it. Check out this NPR story and this piece in The New Atlantis. Numerous scientific studies have shown that when we think we’re multitasking, what our brain is actually doing is rapidly switching its focus back and forth among the various tasks. That hyperspeed switching has been found to actually impair productivity and even to temporarily (we hope) lower the multitasker’s IQ.

    But just as important as these is how the ability to multitask impairs the quality of life. Habitual multitasking eventually leads to an inability to relax, to turn off, or to focus on anything for very long. It’s virtually impossible to be at peace if your mind is perpetually jumping among multiple attention-takers. Over time you realize you’re always tense, you don’t sleep well, and–maybe worst of all–the people in your life feel that you’re disconnected and even uncaring.

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    While sometimes it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to handle more than one task at a time, it is crucially important to your mental health to create some space in your life when you’re not being pulled in multiple directions. Space for quiet, for peace.

    How? A few things come to mind:

    • For some portion of every day, disconnect from the internet. Completely. Don’t check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter. Don’t play online games. Watch an entire movie without once checking your smart phone. Start with an hour a day and build up your tolerance level until you can stay offline for a full day.
    • Turn off your phone at night or leave it in a different room. I struggle with this one. I have a busy legal practice, with clients who expect to be able to reach me pretty much 24/7. I used to keep my BlackBerry on my nightstand while I slept, and would awaken in the night to check and respond to emails. I’ve abandoned that practice, and now leave my iPhone down the hall, in my home office, at night.
    • Take the weekends off. Although it seems that in my profession we’re never really off-duty, we can safely disconnect from work at appropriate times. On the weekends, I leave my iPhone in my home office while I do other things, checking a few times a day for urgent messages. I no longer keep it within reach at all times. And I haven’t yet lost a single client because of it.
    • Take regular breaks. Read this article for great ideas on how and when.
    • Don’t take your phone to dinner. Put your phone in another room at dinner time, and just spend those few minutes talking with the people at the table.
    • Drive in silence. I have a long daily commute, and I like to use that time to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. But sometimes, I turn everything off and drive in silence, with nothing to listen to but my own thoughts.
    • Spend some time every day, or at least every week, outdoors, with no electronic devices. Sometimes, run without an iPod. Walk without your smart phone. Just you and the birds.
    • Read a book with no music and no TV in the background.
    • Don’t check emails during business meetings. Leave your smart phone or iPad in your office. Unless people’s actual, physical lives depend on reaching you at a moment’s notice (probably only true if you are a doctor or the President of the United States), the world won’t come to an end if you are out of the loop for an hour. So pay attention to what’s being said in the meeting. Take notes on paper if you need to. This is one that I need to work on this week.

    The idea is to be a little more in the moment, and a little less distracted. You will find that as you make it a priority to focus more and “multitask” less, several benefits will accrue.

    First, things that really don’t matter will fall off your to-do list.

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    Second, you’ll actually accomplish more (and more high-quality) work on the tasks that have your undivided attention.

    Third, the people you interact with will begin to feel more valued and more “heard.”

    Fourth, you will begin to feel less stressed and more at peace with yourself.

    What do you think? Could your life be improved by focusing on one task at a time? Do you have any tips that you’d add to the list above? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

    (Photo credit: Working from Home via Shutterstock)

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    Laura McClellan

    Passionate about encouraging women in their roles as wives, mothers, friends, and workers.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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