Once upon a time, there was a myth of epic proportions let loose among working professionals…the Myth of Multitasking. Its origins were unknown but some have suggested that it arose from the mistaken belief that we humans have superpowers and can do many things at one time. In fact, as more and more distractions entered our world, and we wanted to partake of all of them, we became susceptible to believing this myth to be true, and soon we began to try multitasking for ourselves.
At first, multitasking took the form of doing two things at once. Driving and listening to our voicemails, or eating while reading our emails were two early experiments in multitasking. Embolden by these early efforts, we began to pile more and more into each moment of the day until we believed there was really no limit to the number of apps we can have open at the same time, or the number of inputs we can expect our brain to receive. The Myth of Multitasking was morphing into a new Reality and human beings were morphing into human doings. And so it went, until people began to notice that their life experiences were changing, and most began to feel uneasy with the changes. Here are just a few examples:
1. Meals began to lose their value as times to nourish ourselves and to speak with others. In fact, the multitaskers often reported that they were not sure what they ate for lunch, or even if they ate lunch that day.
2. Distracted driving became a hazard akin to driving while impaired. People were driving, texting, checking social media and drinking their coffee all while speeding down a highway at 70 mph.
3. Meetings became places where everyone had one eye on their phone and as a result, no one was really listening and not much was getting accomplished.
4. Connections between colleagues, friends and family began to amount to no more than a few words in a text. Real conversations without technology as a distraction or limiter was becoming a thing of the past.
Sound familiar? How do you feel about the new reality? Maybe you are OK with these changes, or believe it is simply the way things are. But, before you accept the changes that come from believing the Myth to be true, there is one more change that is perhaps the most worrisome. Multitasking decreases the mind’s ability to stay focused. And focus, the ability to aim and sustain attention, is a critically important attribute for leadership, whether you apply it to leading your own life or to leading an organization of thousands.
The mind can only attend to one thing at a time. When you think you are multitasking, you are really just switching from one thing to another. The effort to multitask conditions the mind to quickly flit back and forth. The mind never fully attends to anything which is why things get missed. And, when there is a desire to sustain attention on a single task or an important conversation, the mind struggles to do so. It often is pulled away from the task at hand in just a few minutes, necessitating a constant need to redirect. Each time it needs to be redirected, there is a loss of efficiency and productivity and human connection. This loss is compounded when the task has any degree of complexity because the mind cannot simply pick up where it left off, it needs to back up a couple of steps and then reengage.
The mind is not, contrary to the thinking behind the Myth, the same as a computer. A computer has multiple processors so can do multiple things at one time. Multitasking is what a computer does with its multiple processors. Human beings have a single processor, a single brain. The ability to multitask is truly just a Myth, and living your life with the belief that you can multitask has real consequences. Fortunately, you can begin to take some steps to recondition your brain to be more focused by lessening your multitasking habit.
See for yourself: Here are some ways to put the Myth into perspective and begin to retrain your mind to be more focused:
1. For this week, choose to mindfully eat your lunch. No computers or phones, just have lunch. When your mind is pulled away to other thoughts or apps, bring it back to the experience of nourishing your body.
2. Set aside specific times when you will check your email or look at your apps. In between those times, they are off limits so you can pay full attention to getting things done. See if you begin to notice that you are more efficient if you don’t allow yourself to be distracted every few moments.
3. Look for other places where you typically multitask. What might you learn if you choose to do one thing at a time, and then move on?
Keep working on this and soon you, too, will abandon the Myth and the life of the multitasker, and begin to bring your full attention to every moment of every day. In the process, you will become more efficient and effective, and you will begin to more fully embody the moments of your life.
I hope you enjoyed this introductory series on Mindful Leadership. Cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion will support your ability to lead and live with excellence. Enjoy the journey!