The Mirage of Multi-tasking

I used to pride myself on my ability to multitask. [I’m awesome! Look at me cooking dinner while listening to an inspirational speech on my iPhone while making sure my kids play nice together while asking my husband about his day. I am amazing! Watch me scroll through Facebook, alternating with checking my email and blog feed and managing the budget and paying bills, while having a conversation with my daughter, while dandling my toddler on my knee!] It was almost a game to see just how many balls I could juggle at the same time, so to speak.

Until I would inevitably drop one or two of the balls. Turns out, all this juggling was not merely a waste of time and effort; it was actually damaging to my mind and not conducive to building family relationships. Although I was doing a lot of things, I wasn’t doing any of them very effectively or passionately. Some of it I shouldn’t have even been doing at all, at least, not at that particular time or spending that long doing it.

Looking back over some of the years of my life, it’s hard to identify many truly meaningful and important things that I’ve accomplished in all that time. (Besides being an awesome mom to my awesome kids, of course!) And yet, each and every day, I really did feel busy from sunup to sundown. I blame multi-tasking for stealing away my time and so many opportunities to build and to create.

Now that I’m aware of the false productiveness of multitasking, I’ve been working on reprogramming my brain, but old habits die harder than damsel fish in a salt-water aquarium. At least I no longer pride myself on it. After all, change always starts with awareness and an altered attitude. One thing that has helped me is to add structure to my day through rules for myself: only check Facebook and email once in the morning and once in the afternoon, for example. Meditating, reading inspirational literature, and journaling in the mornings before my kids wake up. Exercising at the same time every day. I’m still working toward these goals, and it’s all about progress, not perfection. When I have structure in place, I’m less likely to unconsciously fritter my time away on trivial things.

I label multitasking as a “mirage” for a reason. A mirage is something that seems real, but is actually just an illusion. I’m sure we’re all aware that we can’t actually think more than one conscious thought in any particular instant. We can, however, alternate among different thoughts in a very rapid succession. And the greater the number of different things we’re trying to do or think or say in a certain period of time, the more frequently our brain needs to switch back and forth. Every time our brain switches, it costs us a minuscule bit of time and energy, but these little bits can accumulate rather quickly. So while it seems like we may be accomplishing a lot because we feel so busy, the reality is … we’re inefficient.

If you’re a multitasking junkie, stop it! It’s not healthy for your brain! In fact, it actually causes damage and stress. Our brains are amazing and are capable of this kind of rapidity when it’s necessary, but not all the time. Our minds work their best when they are given the opportunity to really focus on just one thing at a time, for an extended time. That’s when you can really get into the “flow state” and are your most productive. It’s an amazing feeling where you’re so focused on what you’re doing that your brain sort of takes over and you perform at a high level almost effortlessly. How many times in the past week have you gotten into a state of flow? If not very often, you’re selling your brain short.

If you’re like me, these times of mental clarity and focus are few and far between. But I’m changing that. Empowerment tools like declarations and my vision board are teaching me to focus on positive things with intensity. And I’ve recently begun a practice of meditation, just for a few minutes each day. Meditation is very healing for your mind because you focus your attention inward, and on just one thing, usually your breathing. It gives your mind a break from all the stress-and-anxiety-producing demands we place on it every day. (Check back for future blog posts about the benefits of meditation and empowerment tools.)

You may ask, “Well, doesn’t your brain get enough of a break when you’re asleep?” It’s not simply about a brain break, but training yourself to focus. Sleep is important for your brain, but it also needs time to repair itself and form connections when you are completely conscious. When the “director” in your mind takes a back seat and you’re not putting it to work on various tasks or distracting it with triviality, the different areas of your brain synthesize and form connections, and the damage done by rapid switching back and forth can heal. The expansive feeling of the different parts of your brain working together without your intervention is an amazing experience.

I wanted to add something for all you other moms. I’m there, I get it. Children, especially young ones, redirect your attention constantly, even when they’re supposed to be asleep! If you didn’t multi-task sometimes, you’d never get anything done that your heart leads you to do. But it is possible, and indeed necessary, to find moments of stillness and focus. For me, it’s early in the morning. I’ve always been a night owl, so this has been a sacrifice, but pays off big time. And one more thing about flow: Have you ever experienced being in the “flow state” while playing with your children? For me, it’s very rare, but when it happens, it’s magical.

Readers, I want to hear from you.

  • Are any of you recovering multi-taskers? If so, how are you breaking the habit?
  • Is it different for men and women?
  • Do any of you thrive on multi-tasking? If so, what makes it work for you?

Shout it out! This topic really interests me. I’d love to hear your point of view.

One thought on “The Mirage of Multi-tasking

  1. […] We live in a society of “microwave mentality.” We give our attention to something for just a few minutes, or even seconds, and then we’re on to the next shiny object or squirrel that catches our eye. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve scrolled through an online feed, my eyes skimming over everything and nothing all at the same time. Or when I’ve tried to focus on a conversation in a social setting, but couldn’t keep from thinking what I’m going to say next, or who I’d rather be talking to, or what I have going on later that day or week. Or how many times I’ve read something, only to not remember a single thing about it five minutes later. These are all symptoms of the microwave mentality. (Read about the drawbacks of multitasking here.) […]

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