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Multitasking May Not Be Such A Good Thing

Posted on Wed, 23 July, 2014

In the ever growing literature on work-life balance, women’s leaning in or out and the frenetic pace of life in general at this point our species history, I keep hearing about multi-tasking.  I guess I am of an age where I can remember multi-tasking as an encouraged and sought after quality and skill.  I can also remember the actual places I was when I heard first-hand the 80’s music now considered oldies, watching the first ever video on MTV (Video Killed the Radio Star, btw) and I understand the reference “who shot JR”, so there’s that.  Doesn’t it seem that the quality of multi-tasking is less encouraged?  Vilified even?

Multitasking means to do multiple things at once and switching back and forth between them. I have always seemed to straddle the fence of this skill anyway.  When really pushed to focus on things I can juggle several balls, but I find I can do that less reliably or accurately as I mature (read age, but that sounds icky).  Once I became a parent multi-tasking felt impossible.  Frankly remembering my own name at times was hard, now I only have trouble remembering other people’s names, but not my kids, yet.  I will attribute that to selective amnesia once the sibling rivalry escalates.

Many of my clients come in with the same struggles: I can’t do all of this! I can’t manage of this and be present!  I am making so many mistakes now that I used to be able to get right easily!  I can relate to this most days as well, but today in particular as I travel to a conference.  I don’t travel often but I find I am hard pressed to remember the things I used to be able track easily: namely keeping track of all digital devices and accessories needed to power them.  My time zone changed and since I am not good at juggling balls anymore, as I type this blog post while waiting for connecting flight (ball#1) and eat my lunch (ball#2), I notice the time on the phone and try to contact my daughter at home whom I haven’t seen in 24 hours due to a sleepover (ball#3).  Too bad I wasn’t thinking clearly about the time difference and freaked myself out when my mother said she didn’t have said daughter and hoped she was at camp.  Balls 1 and 3 crashed right then and there. Ball 2 was already in my tummy. I did not have the vodka tonic the flight attendant offered me this morning on the first leg of the flight (cause who does that at 7am?!) but I felt I needed one after the moment of panic had subsided.

multitasking-on-the-road

More studies seem to be pointing the harm that multi-tasking actually does due to said stress of keeping so much in the air.  It turns out it may not actually be possible to attend to multiple things at once and get them accurate or feel a sense of accomplishment.  Cortisol is the hormone released during stress and chronic levels of it are toxic to our bodies in the form of encouraging obesity, ulcers, headaches, etc. It is released when multitasking as well.  I can think of at least half a dozen friends as well as admissions from notable women such as Sheryl Sandburg, who all speak candidly about pumping breast milk while cloistered in offices on conference calls.  That’s multi-tasking!  I’ve just read Hands Free Mama which talks explicitly about being present with less distractions and mindfulness – that intentional practice of noticing how you are feeling and what’s going on around you; mediating optional.  It’s the antidote to multitasking and feeling burned out.

The cognitive consequences of multitasking are coming out in research now I think spurred by increasing rates of burn out, adrenal fatigue and higher incidents of stress-related conditions.  Productivity can fall as much as 40% when multitasking is practiced since the rapid switching between topics/tasks cannot be sustained long-term by our executive functions.  Turns out the frenetic pace of our society (not encouraging hands-free mindfulness at all) mimics or encourages ADD sort of behavior.  As I describe myself in this blog, I am describing some of the ADD characteristics but it’s not severe enough to qualify for the diagnosis.

Anyway, just noticing the easier it is for me to slow down and focus on one thing at a time and how that causes me to get less done but I feel better and make better connections in relationships.  How about you?  Now that I’m at my destination (Orlando, in July) I’m heading to the pool cause the humidity is intense!

 

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A blog written by a hip, sometimes irreverent shrink who’s been around the block and calls it like it is

Humor is a great way to make sense of the world around us - and a little psychological perspective never hurt

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