Exposing the myth of multitasking
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.