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The Dangers of Multi-Tasking

While on retreat in Colorado , I had only one purpose; to do no-thing. I didn’t shower. I didn’t shave. I didn’t eat. I just meditated. I did hike do yoga…but these merely served the purpose of helping to calm my body so I could sit down and do nothing again (i.e. meditate).

The single-pointedness of it all brought about more focus than I have had in my life in years. There was no opportunity, energy or desire to do more than one thing at a time.However, going back to work I again found myself constantly interrupted and distracted. When other people weren’t interrupting me, I found my brain creating interruptions for itself! Did I just get an email? What is the stock price? Did someone leave a comment on myblog ? Did I remember to pay all my bills this month? Should I work on one of the other 5 projects I have going on right now? Did I just get another email? Should I go get some coffee? Should I eat something again?

It is a nonstop deluge. On the upside, I am now becoming more conscious of what is going on. Before I was just clueless, so progress is being made. I am better about not reacting to these urges tomulti-task. Multi -tasking is at best a huge time-sink and at worst could completely disrupt your mind’s ability to learn and even more…it could compromise your physical and emotional well-being. The sad thing is, many people actually think that multi-tasking is a better way to work. I used to.

Why we think it is good
The ability to multi-task is a powerful and wonderful capacity of the human brain. In primitive times, it gave early Men and Women the capacity to hunt, gather, cook and keep track of the children at the same time. It allows you to carry on a conversation while crossing the road and watching for traffic. It will allow you to talk on your cellphone and chop vegetables without losing a finger. Really,multi-tasking is a huge gift. You can thank that part of your brain right behind your forehead, the anterior portion of the prefrontal cortex. It has played a huge part in keeping our species alive and well. It has been bestowed to each of us through the evolutionary lottery.

But why settle for just using this skill to keep ourselves alive? In the name of progress, we’ve applied this ability to pursue everything from dual-degrees in college to watching four football game at once on a big screen TV. We listen to music while reading. Heck, I am watching a movie (LoTR II for the fiftieth time) while typing this blog post! I haven’t quite gotten a handle on eating while sleeping…but I think that would be a great time saver too :)!

The potential dangers
In July 2006, UCLA published a study showing that “Multi-tasking adversely affect how you learn.” Why? When you multi-task you are still learning, but you are activating a different system in the brain than if you were to focus on a single task. In the study, the researchers used MRI’s to monitor brain activity while participants performed a task of sorting through a series of cards. In one set of participants, they were left alone to complete their task. In the other set, they were forced to listen to high and low pitched beeps through headphones. The participants had to keep track of the number of high pitched beeps while simultaneously performing the card sort. When quizzed for recall after the experiment, it was found that the distracted group had a much less profound grasp on the material. Their learning was less flexible and applicable to a different context than that in which it was learned. This study shows that whilemulti -tasking for rote tasks (e.g. listening to music while working out) may not be that bad, it will not be such a good idea when it comes to learning something new.

On top of the impact on learning, there has also been extensive research on the time-cost of multi-tasking. While we believe that we are getting more done in less time by balancing three things at once, research tells another story. A study from MIT, showed that when students were forced to balance several tasks at once, their brain activity “went dark” for a short period every time they switched contexts. It was like their brains were taking a forced breather before switching tasks! One would expect brain activity to be over-stimulated bymulti-tasking, while the opposite was the case. There was more downtime.

The University of Michigan performed a similar study and found that for a rudimentary set of tasks (sorting two stacks of cards according to different rules), it took people 1/2 a second to a second for their brains to make the contextswtich . While that may not seem like much, just imagine the effect when it is multiplied over the hundreds of times we switch contexts in a typical day! Also, for the worker balancing multiple creative projects, the time for the brain to fully switch contexts will be much greater than one second. Perhaps a minute or more for a very complex project.

Oh and that magic part of your brain we talked about that gives us this beautiful gift in the first place, the prefrontal cortex…it turns out this part of the brain is also one of the areas most affected by stress, something that constant multi-tasking will create tons of. Killing off brain cells in this region will hamper your ability to learn and retain things over the long term. It is a vicious little “catch” that comes with this evolutionary gift.

Cure yourself
So you want to fix your multi-tasking addiction? First, keep in mind that multi-tasking isn’t always a terrible thing. Just understand that when you are doing it, chances are you won’t have many creative breakthroughs. If you are trying to memorize Shakespeare or paint a wall mural, forget it (unless you are truly a savant, in which case why are you wasting time reading this blog?). It you are folding laundry, sorting through e-mails or going for a jog….turn up the music all you want if that will keep you motivated!

For the rest of the times in your life when focus counts, try out these tips that I use myself.

  • Focus on your breath: set a habit of regularly focusing on one thing. Personally, I like to meditate daily. If that is not your thing, practice paying attention to your breathing for 5 minutes a stretch, a few times during the day. Focus on your outgoing breath. Every time your mind wanders, just bring it back to the outgoing breath. This will have a calming effect on the body and the mind. It souds simple but is ridiculously challenging. Give it a try.
  • Set aside a fixed time to get distracted: take note of things that tend to throw you off balance. Perhaps it is checking the stock ticker, or your blog, or your e-mail. Make a list of these things and place it in plain view on your desk or computer. Set a regular time for doing these things to take the surprise-element off the table. Turn these “diversions” into structured tasks to help stop being impulsive.
  • Unplug your Internet connection (for a short while!): I think you know where I am going with this one.
  • Read or Play games: Play games that keep your brain active on a common set of tasks for long periods of time. Crosswords, boards games, trivia, number games. Reading also helps.
  • Affirmations: next time you are about to stop doing what you are doing to check your e-mail….tell yourself that there is nothing in the world more important than what you are doing at this very moment. After doing a few times, I’ve found that my impulse to run away to another task will just disappear.

Hope these tips help, and if you have others, pls drop me a line (ravisraman@gmail.com ) and I’ll post them.

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15 comments

  1. endarprasetio.com says:

    I rarely leave a response, but I read a few of the remarks on this page The Dangers of Multi-Tasking

  2. swnisaralananda says:

    OM Hi Ravi, In your breathing, thorough, article no mention is made of th eexhale. I have known yogically for years always to breath in thru the nose…but I hike a lot and what I have come to do is the exhale as tho blowing a balloon to get totally as much air out to empty as i can then breathe in slowly. It seems to work well for me, unless it’s just my imagination….anyway this a.m. i was out praticing otherwise….
    Aloha..From the newbee on your site…You might remember me as Kalyani.

  3. Sashka Litcheski says:

    The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind (Hardcover)
    by Richard Restak

    Please read this book. Alot of the book brings together research about mulitiasking and how our brain in changing

  4. darrick says:

    Rav,
    When I am on the internet I usually have 3 or 4 browsers open at a time so I can ‘multitask’….youtube, vegsource, my blog, my email. I am wondering if this is not as affective as focussing on one?
    What do you do?

    I have been strength training lately by doing only one muscle group per work out. today I did 100 pullups in a 20min period…two days ago I did 120 pushups thr0ughout the day…i am really loving this style of training instead of multitasking my strength training and supersetting as I always have.

  5. ravisraman says:

    so true. I’ve learned to be flexible with my schedule. If I am on a roll with something. I let it roll! Even if that means putting off doing off other things I planned to do. Too bad it’s taking me 27 years to figure this out 🙂 I’ve checked out your blog btw…good stuff!

  6. Peter Kua says:

    That I can relate to. Up till a year ago, I was contstantly multitasking between checking email, writing proposals, programming, checking email, surfing, checking email again, etc. After I began practicing yoga, somehow I realized that focusing your energy on one thing at a time makes you more productive and takes up less time. And when it’s time to quit working and start playing, I never hesitate to drop whatever I’m working on. Afterall, work can never finish…

  7. Pingback: Creating a Better Life » The Personal Development Carnival - October 29, 2006

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