To Be, Or To Multitask

multitasking, busy, mindfulness, I.Q., cell phone, distraction,

I did it again. Deleted unwanted emails while on the phone, just trying to be efficient. No, I wasn’t reading the emails. Honestly I started out just deleting. But I had to scan quickly through a few to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And next thing you know it was time to end the conversation. Sadly our entire interaction felt flat, as if we never really connected. I know why. I wasn’t really part of it. Chances are the very busy person I was talking to wasn’t either. Yay for multitasking.

This is the opposite of my true intentions. I keep writing about the importance of paying attention, connecting with nature, and centering our lives on what’s positive.

I try, I really do. But even when we live simply it takes real effort to avoid being rushed and over-obligated.

My mother was an early adherent of multitasking. She liked to say there was no sense doing just one thing at a time. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, however, when she spent requisite quality time playing a board game with me while heating her curler-bedecked head under the hairdryer (those 70’s models were as loud as leaf blowers) and talking on the phone. I was never sure how the person on the other end of the phone heard her over that hairdryer; that person may have been loudly washing dishes, making them both disconnected multitaskers.

It’s much easier to multitask now. In fact, we’re rewiring the way we operate minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to distraction. That seems to make us uncomfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation or conversation.

A recent study found that people asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired.

When we multitask it feels as if we’re accomplishing more. Who can’t stir a pot of noodles, listen to music and still maintain a decent conversation?  That’s easy.  Although we’re not really paying attention to that music or honoring the conversation with eye contact and full awareness (let alone mindfully attending to the noodles).

The major multitasking whammy comes from doing similar functions at the same time, as I was doing by talking on the phone and checking email. That’s because the brain doesn’t really do both task simultaneously, it goes back and forth, relentlessly switching attention.

All that switching causes our performance to plummet.  Studies show multitasking makes us up to 40 percent slower or causes the same lack of concentration as giving up a night’s sleep.

Perhaps even worse, we don’t recognize the stress it imposes.  As our brains focus and refocus, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline.  We may work faster, but also feel more frustration and pressure, and the ability to concentrate becomes increasingly impaired.

Talking on the phone and reading email doesn’t just make me somewhat inattentive, studies find that multitasking can functionally lower one’s I.Q. by as much as ten points.  In my case, I suspect it’s quite a bit more.

So many parts of our lives seem to require multitasking. Parenthood certainly does, nearly every job does too. But I want to be, really be. Multitasking subtracts from that.

I’m taking a vow to walk away from any screen any time I pick up the phone. I’m vowing to spend less time using technology, more time in nature. Any vows you’ve taken? How’s that going for you?




“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living



photo courtesy of Jayo

5 thoughts on “To Be, Or To Multitask

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