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The Unintended Consequences of Multi-Tasking

Today, I wonder, what has multi-tasking done to us?

I remember becoming acutely aware of students’ multi-tasking abilities in 2005. I watched my daughter, who was a senior in high school, do her homework while also enjoying four other inputs—music from her iPod, a television show, her laptop and her phone, which enabled her to continue an ongoing conversation with a friend about a boy.

Today, most of us can’t imagine doing life without multi-tasking. Our calendars are so full and our expectations so high, we feel we must accomplish two or more tasks at any given time. In 2007, students from Kansas State University surveyed themselves and discovered they cram 26.5 hours of activity into every day—multi-tasking. I think that number is conservative.

Today, I wonder, what has multi-tasking done to us?

As busy people, most of us would agree that multi-tasking is helpful. We pick up our child at school while talking with a friend on our mobile device, all the while running errands that enable us to cook dinner that evening. Unfortunately, at the same time, it seems that few people really pay attention to one thing well. We lack clarity. Multi-tasking seems to make us:

  • shallow, not deep
  • fuzzy, not focused
  • distracted, not aligned
  • live with duplicity, not integrity

What’s Wrong with Multi-Tasking?

 Library NaUKMA/Photopin
Source: photo credit: Library NaUKMA/Photopin

Thanks to social media, our students have grown up multi-tasking, but has all of the multi-tasking been poor for their health? After some digging I’ve concluded that multi-tasking is damaging. Apart from the obvious dangers like “texting while driving,” multi-tasking plays a significant role in the anxiety and depression levels our students experience. A squirt of dopamine is released when we accomplish one of the items on our multi-tasking list. It makes us feel good. We tend to pursue more short-term tasks that give us this dopamine shot, and soon we’re caught up in quantity over quality. We actually work harder, not smarter. And we don’t really focus. We assume we’re doing more and better, but in reality we trade in value for speed and volume.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller reveals that our brains are “not wired to multitask well . . . when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

A study at the University of London demonstrated that people who multi-task while performing cognitive tasks experience measurable IQ drops. Believe it or not, the IQ drops were akin to what you see in those who skip a night of sleep or who use marijuana. Wow.

Most of all, doctors tell us that multi-tasking causes an increase in the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. When our brain consistently shifts gears, it creates stress and tires us out, leaving us feeling mentally fatigued. In addition, the barrage of information is overwhelming. Figuring out what you need to pay attention to and what you don’t can be down right exhausting.

A Game Plan: Mono-Tasking

I have a challenge for you. Why not talk this over with your students or kids and encourage them to look at the data. Then—invite them to trade in “multi-tasking” for “mono-tasking.” You read that correctly. Mono-tasking has become a lost art. It means concentrating on one important task, instead of four or five. It’s giving your best effort to one item—not your mediocre effort to several. Most importantly, it enables a student to integrate their life. Integration is taken from the same root word as: “integrity.” It means being one person. Clear. Focused. On-mission. It’s choosing to shun duplicity and hypocrisy in favor of authenticity. It’s really all about mindfulness.

Integration is the smoothest path to overcome stress, and mindfulness is the best path to take toward integration. Mindfulness has become a buzzword in many circles today. In layman’s terms, mindfulness is clearing one’s mind of the clutter of multi-tasking and focusing on the here and now. It can go as far as deep breathing and meditation, but it can begin by simply pushing “pause” on the noise and activity of a stressful day. Neuroscientist Moshe Bar, at Harvard Medical School, tells us our brains switch back and forth from activity to recovery mode. Our brains need periods of recovery, but rarely get them. Mindfulness is about consistently choosing to stop our relentless “juggling acts” (multi-tasking) for a specified amount of time—in order for our brains to recover. The benefits are tangible. “The American Psychological Association cites it as a hopeful strategy for alleviating depression, anxiety and pain.” It’s a step to combat the:

  • over-stimulated,
  • over-taxed,
  • over-connected,
  • over-committed,
  • overwhelmed

lifestyles our young have accumulated. “The American Psychological Association tells us that 34 percent of Americans say their stress has shot up in the last year.” I believe it’s even more so among our youth.

Making a Trade

So, today, I’m suggesting one simple step. To trade in multi-tasking for mono-tasking. To trade in scattered minds for mindfulness. Then, to encourage our students to do the same thing. Rebel against the inclination of our culture for noise and clutter. Rebel against the compulsion to be aware of everything all at once and be mindful. Reject FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and let’s do MONO . . . as in mono-tasking.

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