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Multitasking the “21st century sugar”

Do you ever say any of the following things to yourself?

  • I am too busy to do that
  • I’m always behind
  • I never have time for myself
  • I never get anything done
  • I am a great multitasker!

Believe it or not, all of these thoughts are related.  Many people complain about not having enough time or are constantly left feeling no closer to achieving their goals. They are pulled in many directions and divided between two or more tasks. This is called multitasking. Most of us think we are good at it and that it’s a positive idea. In fact, multitasking is often the source of our frustration and lack of achievement.

Multitasking is doing two or more things at the same time. For example, you might listen to a conference call while responding to emails. But, guess what: you aren’t doing either very effectively. And, every time you allow yourself to be interrupted while working on a project, you are also multi-tasking. Experts call this task-switching but the idea is it impairs your ability to function. There is one caveat; for some, having music playing in the background —white noise—  provides additional brain stimulation to assist with focus.

Successful multitasking is a myth! Your brain is not designed to work that way even though multitasking makes you feel more productive. At the end of the day there is a cost to multitasking in terms of what you accomplish.

But multitasking is addictive just like sugar. Why? It triggers the reward center of the brain thus creating a “dopamine-feedback loop.” And just like sugar, once you start indulging, it’s hard to stop. The cravings only grow stronger.

The Cost of Multitasking 

Multitasking reduces your productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency. It also causes additional stress, and — here’s the big kicker — it leaves you prone to being bored, anxious and depressed. “Multitasking overloads your brain,” according to Chris Bailey, author of the book The Productivity Project. 

If you step back and look at your multitasking you will find you have only partially skimmed the surface of the task you were completing. Most likely, you will also discover you have poor recall of what you did and that, effectively, you have done very little.

With multitasking, you have an experience that may be compared to a sugar crash. After the high of “getting things done,” you are left feeling exhausted and drained. You will also likely find that you are more irritable.

Understand how your brain works

Interestingly, you can hold onto several chunks of information in your mind at once. The challenge is “you can’t perform more than one conscious process at a time with these chunks without impacting performance,” according to leadership coach David Rock. Performance never lies; you always do your work in one of three ways: well, in a mediocre fashion, or not at all. When you try to do multiple cognitive tasks at the same time you’re more likely to fall in the mediocre or “not-at-all” categories.

Getting off the “dopamine-feedback loop”

If you want to accomplish more, begin by asking yourself if you’re willing to step back and see how effective you really are? I know as an entrepreneur I can easily feel that I can accomplish way more by doing two things at once. But when I actually started looking at how I was spending my own time, I realized that multitasking only made me feel frazzled. I also noticed how ineffective my kids were in completing their school work while watching YouTube and snap chatting with their friends. Before I could address my kids’ processes, however, I had to look at mine and figure out what to do. 

Multitask Detox?

Learning to focus on one task at a time starts with putting our phones away, turning off notifications, and creating boundaries. In the beginning, it may seem like the task is impossible. There was a time when we didn’t have cell phones so, trust me when I say it will be okay.  You have to train your attention muscle so start small, with as few as 20 minutes in the beginning. Think of it as the 21st century sugar detox. As with any detox, you will most likely experience anxiety and moodiness.

Even if you aren’t obsessed with your phone, you likely aren’t paying enough attention when you focus on your work. Responding to e-mails, checking your favorite news site, or allowing visitors to distract you while working on a project are examples we can all relate to when at the office.  The key is to set yourself up for success by using a time management method like the Pomodoro Technique to dedicate a specific amount of time to focus on one task. One strategy is to block off time on your calendar to focus on a specific job. Be sure to let others know you are not available. You can also train your attention muscle by practicing active listening, which will also do wonders for your relationships. When sitting down for a meal, just focus on eating (no reading the paper or checking FaceBook), or go for a walk without the ear buds and take notice of how the ground feels under your feet, (This is called  walking mindfulness). Remember to be patient with yourself as you learn to develop the one-thing-at-a-time skill. It takes practice. Keep in mind that creating a new habit can take 66 to 254 repetitions. 

Now, what about your kids? 

First and foremost, we parents have to model the behavior we are looking for. Kids love to point out our hypocrisy so practice what you preach before teaching your kids to single-task.

Set some explicit ground-rules such as doing homework somewhere other than their bedroom, not having the TV or YouTube running and agreeing to when homework should be done by. You can reward them by allowing them to dink around on their devices afterwards. One catalyst for this conversation could occur if your teen is complaining about having no time. I suggest doing an experiment. Have them track how long everything takes with their current process and then have them track themselves with all distractions removed. You will be a part of their support team because they will be going through their own detox; don’t take it personally if they are a bit prickly at first. And remind them of what’s in it for them: they will be done more quickly and have more time to do the things they want. Isn’t that what we all would like?

About The Author

Roxanne Turner is a Board Certified Life Coach with extensive training in ADHD and executive functioning, focusing on the process of getting things done. Roxanne brings a unique and personal perspective to her coaching work drawing from her experience in both the corporate and equestrian worlds. Outside of work, Roxanne is a devoted wife and step-mother to two teenage boys and enjoys time spent with family, the outdoors, and pursuing epic adventures.