The illusion of multitasking
Multitasking is a common buzzword in the corporate world. It is something you are expected to do and you expect others to do. Focusing your mind usually isn’t. The idea being of course that by working on dozens of things at the same time you will complete them all more quickly. I was a believer in multitasking. And what’s more, I kept on asking other people to multitask. I ‘just knew’ this was the best way to meet those ambitious goals together!
Just because we can switch from one activity to another doesn’t mean it is a good way to work. Not keeping focus, which multitasking really is, doesn’t sound great either.
Now I am not so sure of my past wisdom. I think the short answer to whether humans can really multitask is probably “No, we can’t”. I don’t believe that we can consciously perform at once two activities that require intense focus. Think of the obvious example of speaking on the telephone while driving – in many countries it was pervasive until it was shown to be a recipe for disaster. Of course, we can allocate time to one thing and then another, and this may be thought of as multitasking. The thing is we clutter our brains with so much different information for each activity that finding and relating concepts relevant for one might not be so easy. So why not try focusing your mind for a change?
We have an almost insatiable appetite for external stimulation of our senses. And our minds absorb the resulting information all the time, hoping that it will be there when we need it.
The power of focusing your mind
You might have heard the famous quip that “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates.” Well, my desk is usually empty. And while I hope my mind isn’t empty, I do my best not to clutter it. For one, I avoid the temptation to absorb everything my senses share with my brain – I am especially cautious about current affairs as portrayed by the media. Reducing emotional clutter from experiences I dislike requires more indirect measures… exercising and practicing yoga work well for me.
When focusing on one activity, I give myself time and try not to be rushed to do something next. I am persistent in repeatedly dedicating time to activities that are important to me, even if I don’t seem to be progressing or immediately achieving what I aim for. I carefully chose the physical environment where I dedicate time to important activities in order to limit sensory distractions – no unexpected noises, sights or smells. And usually no unexpected people either. And of course no devices, so no email, no messaging, no notifications.
Multitasking was for a long-time an illusionary friend of mine. These days I go for ‘less means more’: less and more relevant information, focusing on one activity at a time!
Sherlock Holmes did his best to forget any information that was not relevant to his existence. While I haven’t gone this far, I really enjoy the mental freedom of decluttering and focusing. So why not try decluttering for some time, particularly if you are tired of being in acute multitasking mode? You might just find a different balance which increases your wellbeing.