Girl, In­ter­rupted

Ex­pos­ing the myth of mul­ti­task­ing

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - News -

The re­al­ity of how of­ten she was dis­tracted only hit Madeleine Shaw when she set her­self a “mono­task­ing” chal­lenge. For 24 hours, she kept a tally of how of­ten her mind jumped in the mid­dle of a task. “It was a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. “I re­alised I am al­most in­ca­pable of fo­cus­ing on one thing at a time. At work I click be­tween tabs on the com­puter, and while driv­ing I sub­con­sciously reach for the ra­dio dial.” As a life coach, the big­gest wake-up call was her in­abil­ity to pay at­ten­tion to her daugh­ter. “I’ve al­ways prided my­self on be­ing present when talk­ing to her,” she says, “How­ever, I soon re­alised I’m ac­tu­ally only present when it fits my timetable. When I’m busy, I just lis­ten for a mo­ment and then start feel­ing im­pa­tient.”

Ac­cord­ing to a study by Michi­gan State Univer­sity, work­ing moth­ers spend 48.3 hours per week mul­ti­task­ing – 10 hours more than the av­er­age work­ing fa­ther – and re­port feel­ing more stress and con­flicted feel­ings while do­ing so. It seems dig­i­tal in­tru­sion is one of the worst of­fend­ers.

In a re­cent Swedish study, 33 per­cent of chil­dren com­plained that their par­ents spend too much time dis­tracted by tech­nol­ogy. Of those par­ents sur­veyed, 20 per­cent even ad­mit­ted they’d lost a child dur­ing an out­ing. There is a uni­ver­sal be­lief that women are hard-wired to jug­gle – ca­pa­ble of driv­ing a car while ref­er­ee­ing a sib­ling ar­gu­ment and men­tally de­frost­ing the freezer all at once. How­ever, new re­search sug­gests mul­ti­task­ing is a myth. We think we’re tack­ling nu­mer­ous tasks at once, but we’re ac­tu­ally switch­ing be­tween them at speed. Our brain is con­stantly hav­ing to shift its goal and fo­cus, which is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. When re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia stud­ied the ef­fects of in­ter­rup­tions on of­fice work­ers, they found it took on av­er­age 25 min­utes to re­cover from in­ter­rup­tions and re­turn to a task. That means if you’re dis­tracted 16 times dur­ing an eight-hour work­day, you may as well have stayed in bed. In fact, only 2.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion – re­ferred to by sci­en­tists as “su­per­taskers” – have the men­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties to hop be­tween tasks with­out any drop in per­for­mance. The rest of us are just scat­ter­brained.

Our in­abil­ity to fo­cus on one task at a time be­fore mov­ing on has been de­scribed as “short­hand liv­ing”. When it comes to thoughts and ac­tions, we of­ten opt for quan­tity over qual­ity. At the ex­treme end of the scale, not liv­ing in the mo­ment can have tragic con­se­quences. In 2013, an 11-month-old boy in Perth died af­ter his fa­ther for­got to drop him at child­care, leav­ing him in the car all day.

In­ter­per­sonal is­sues arise when friends and fam­ily en­ter and we’re un­able to in­ter­act ef­fec­tively; when our brains are over­bur­dened, our em­pa­thy de­creases. We scroll through Twit­ter or read texts while hav­ing cof­fee with friends. Shouldn’t our con­science stop us? “We’re fac­ing an epi­demic of dis­trac­tion,” says med­i­ta­tion teacher Jonni Pol­lard, co­founder of 1 Gi­ant Mind, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that teaches and re­searches the ef­fects of mind­ful­ness. “Many of us think we’re great at mul­ti­task­ing when we’re just ex­tremely dis­tracted.”

The hu­man brain is highly sus­cep­ti­ble to in­vol­un­tary de­mands on its at­ten­tion. As any­one who’s tried to “dig­i­tally detox” knows, cer­tain dis­trac­tion tech­niques are ex­tremely ad­dic­tive. “It’s a sur­vival mech­a­nism,” says Pol­lard. “If some­one has the choice to sit in si­lence and face the in­ter­nal co­nun­drum in their mind or check the news on Face­book, many will choose the lat­ter. We jus­tify it by say­ing we’re ‘keep­ing our­selves oc­cu­pied’, be­cause that sounds like what we’re do­ing is im­por­tant.” It doesn’t help that an end­less stream of dis­trac­tions is now at our fin­ger­tips, leav­ing many suf­fer­ing from “dis­trac­tion fa­tigue”. How­ever, we can choose to un­plug – even par­tially. In Ber­lin, retro Nokia phones are mak­ing a come­back, as more peo­ple choose to swap smart­phones for ’90s hand­sets that only al­low the user to text and make phone calls: no In­ter­net, no cam­era, no so­cial me­dia, and no self­ies. There is also a grow­ing mar­ket for “anti-dis­trac­tion” soft­ware. More than 500,000 peo­ple have down­loaded the Free­dom app, which blocks users from the In­ter­net for a cho­sen pe­riod. Sim­i­larly, apps such as WriteRoom block out tabs and back­ground clut­ter on your com­puter, leav­ing only a blank screen to type on.

“Most of us face a con­stant bar­rage of de­mands,” says Pol­lard. “The prob­lem is that we’ve lost the abil­ity to dis­cern which ex­ter­nal stim­uli are good for us. It’s im­por­tant to take a mo­ment to re­con­nect with your true self and as­sess which tasks and in­ter­ac­tions are ben­e­fi­cial and vi­tal.” Even ex­perts agree not all dis­trac­tions are un­healthy. In fact, “con­trolled dis­trac­tion” can be use­ful. In a 2012 study from the Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­tre in Ham­burg, vol­un­teers were asked to mem­o­rise a se­ries of let­ters while hav­ing heat ap­plied to their arms; MRI scans showed they felt less pain when dis­tracted. The Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton has also de­vel­oped a com­puter game called SnowWorld, de­signed to dis­tract burn vic­tims while their wounds are be­ing dressed.

There is a time and a place for ev­ery­thing. The key is pri­ori­tis­ing and choos­ing which dis­trac­tions you let in, rather than al­low­ing your mind to be a slave to ev­ery stim­u­lus.

Be hon­est, were you dis­tracted when read­ing this? It may be time to take the mono­task­ing chal­lenge your­self.

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