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The Myth of Multitasking

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I know someone who multitasks during his one-hour commute to and from work each day. I don’t mean he just sends text messages or checks his email. I mean he actually watches movies on his laptop while he’s driving. Or he’ll pull up the New York Times on his tablet and put it on the steering wheel so he can read while he drives. Sometimes he’ll play games. He gets in a lot of accidents.

Go to any technology conference, and you’ll notice that practically everyone is immersed in a screen (phone, tablet, laptop etc.) paying little attention to what is actually going on. It’s disconcerting to speak at these events, because no one is looking at you. Everyone is “listening with one ear,” which seems worse than not listening at all. These are conferences that cost thousands of dollars to attend, and people are barely paying attention!

Or take a look in the conference rooms of companies across the world, where there are dozens of employees supposedly engaged in the meeting but actually lost in their screens. If everyone is only giving the meeting one-tenth of their attention, it requires ten people to make up the attention of one person. This is why so many inessential people are invited to the meeting: hopefully someone is listening, someone who can make the critical decision!

We pay an awful lot of attention tax through the digital distractions that tempt us every waking moment: email, websites, instant messaging, social media, text messages, and funny photos of overweight babies. Who can resist all these things? And why would you want to, when clearly they are put there for our enjoyment?

Those who multitask
Are doing nothing fast.

The torrent of information, as well as the technologies that feed it to us, are so new that we don’t have rules for them yet. We indiscriminately install time-wasting apps, leave on concentration-interrupting alerts, and jump at text messages, emails, and friend requests. If our minds are already misbehaving dogs, then these technology toys are like squirrels in the front yard.

The problem is not the technology but our indiscriminate
and undisciplined use of it.

These attention-grabbing apps and alerts quickly become bad habits, making our minds even less disciplined. Just as we must watch our diet to avoid getting fat, we must watch our attention-interrupting habits so that our mental powers do not become weak and flabby.

Among the worst of these habits is multitasking. There is a wealth of scientific research indicating that “multitasking” really means “doing several things badly at once.” Multiple studies have shown that you’re slower when you switch between tasks than when you do one task repeatedly2—and that you grow less and less efficient as the tasks grow increasingly complex.3

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell defines “multitasking” as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”4 And we continue to buy into the myth that multitasking is possible, and even desirable. We keep open a chat window so we’re always “available.” We jump at text messages. We keep a feed or news ticker running so we’re “plugged in” or “connected.”

Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass, one of the pioneers of multitasking research, explained it like this:

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

In other words, this fragmentation of attention is making our minds weaker, not stronger. Each distraction you allow yourself actually makes you less productive, less capable, and less . . . SQUIRREL!

Sorry, thought I saw a squirrel.

We All Have ADD

If multitasking is so bad for us, why do we keep at it?

Because it is addictive.

As you wait in line at a restaurant, do you pull out your phone? As you’re getting ready for bed, do you check your email one last time? As you’re sitting at a table, with flesh and blood human beings, do you interact with humans somewhere else? It’s this addictive nature of our devices that has led writer Soren Gordhamer to ask: Are we in control of technology, or is technology controlling us?

MIND GAME

Squirrel

 

For the rest of the day, try to become aware of whenever your attention is pulled away from the task at hand by either digital or human interruptions. Try to become aware of the feeling of “broken flow” when you lose your concentration.

Keep track of how many interruptions you notice. At the end of the day, write down the final number on your practice sheet.

Is it any wonder attention deficit disorder is so prevalent? Although ADD was first described in 1902, it has been steadily on the rise in recent years. Now, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10 percent of U.S. school-age children (ages four to seventeen) have ADD—to say nothing of the adults.

Here’s an easy way to see the mind clearly: occasionally go into a meeting or social gathering without your device, and be aware of your impulse to check a screen.

You may find screen checking has become an ingrained habit, a compulsion—and the only way to begin correcting this impulse, this addiction, is to first become aware of it. This need to constantly check a screen is a symptom of the misbehaving dog mind, as is the need to have several browser tabs open, to do homework while watching TV, or to simultaneously play three hands of online poker while flying a plane.

Your mind craves information; that’s what it eats. Unfortunately, your mind has bulimia.

A 2013 study from Kent State University surveyed five hundred students and found that higher smartphone use was highly correlated with higher anxiety: stress and screens go hand in hand. Another study at the University of Worcester in Britain found the same holds true for workers: the more they check their smartphones, the more they suffer from stress, “because people get caught up in compulsively checking for new messages, alerts and updates.”

The great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained dogs by always ringing a bell before he presented them with food. Eventually he found the dogs would slobber uncontrollably as soon as he rang the bell, even before he had presented the food: their bodies had become “conditioned” to prepare for food when the bell was rung. Similarly, attention-interrupting “tools” like email alerts and instant messaging have conditioned our minds to expect a tiny burst of informational pleasure.

Let’s say you get a text message alert. (Maybe it even sounds like a bell!) You know there is new information waiting for you: it might be someone saying hello, it might be a picture of your sister’s kids, it might even be an exciting emergency. That bell has conditioned our dog minds to slobber with anticipation as we stop whatever we’re doing and tend to the text message. We are all Pavlov’s dogs.

Try to become aware of the precise feeling, so you can recognize it when it happens. Try to capture that feeling of discontinuity, the “jerkiness” of being pulled out of concentration. That drug-like cycle, the addictive temptation with its accompanying mini-burst of pleasure, is what we want to overcome. The disobedient dog thrives on this chaos; it is a picture of mental weakness.

Now, compare this with the feeling of “flow”: being immersed in an activity, with unbroken concentration. You might call this being “in the zone” or “losing yourself.” You can probably think of some activity where you’re in the zone: making music, coding, or just reading a great book. Close your eyes and picture that flow of effortless concentration; try to get a sense of what it feels like. That’s what the well trained mind is all about. This is a picture of mental strength.

We can learn how to develop this state at will. The key to this retraining is the lost art of concentration, the subject of our next chapter. Concentration training brings clarity and focus to our mental efforts and is a foundational skill of mind hacking. It’s not just about turning off your instant messenger but also about learning specific exercises that actively increase your powers of concentration. This is how you discipline the dog.

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