Multitasking Addiction – Focusing On The Problem

We don’t multitask.  We can’t!

We focus on one task at a time, and we can switch back and forth to juggle-task.  But multitasking – focusing on more than one thing at a time – is a myth.

We hold one task in our mind’s “parking lot” while we focus on an alternate task.  Then we switch back to “where we were” in hopes of continuing as if we didn’t ever take a break.

Studies and stories have shown that we are, in fact, less effective when we multitask.  Our brains are designed differently.  While our brains are powerful and adaptive machines, we cannot train them to multitask.  We swap back and forth, which is more stressful than just doing one task at a time.

What’s in it for me?

And while this is stressful, there must be a reason we do this, yes?  Here are some possibilities:

  • We may have to balance tasks that can’t be done all at once.  And example is cooking a meal with 4 different parts… you have to cook all of them simultaneously, so that the meal is ready to eat at the same end time.  We accept being a little less productive because the goal is worth it.
  • We may be happier at times when we multitask, since we are moving forward in multiple areas of life.
  • We may have trained ourselves to like trying to multitask… and we may be addicted to aspects of it…

The last bullet relates to the reward that interruptions can bring.  The “you have new messages” sound on our computers and phones makes us wonder “will this be a nice surprise?”.  Or will it be spam?  For many of us, when we check, we trigger a part of our brains that enjoys this type of action.

What type of action?  We are apparently wired to enjoy a surprise reward more than an expected reward.  Gambling, such as slot machines, is addictive for the same reason.  The more technical details involve our dopamine neurons, and our desire for figuring out the patterns that may produce rewards.

Random Rewards Are Addictive

Technology has evolved to let us allow the same addictive conditioning with our electronic interactions.  Keep watching (insert your favorite social website, app, email account, etc.) and you will get random responses.  Some will be like the no-wins at the slot machine.  Some will be one or 2 cherries – a little pick-me-up.

And some will be “ring-the-bell awesome” interactions… life-changing… perhaps a new baby announcement, a job offer, landing a huge new client, a date with someone new, pictures of a long-lost friend or relative, etc.

Many people get antsy when they don’t get to check-in for a few minutes, hours, or even seconds.  If you have ever looked at your phone (or PDA) and then looked 10 or 20 seconds later out of habit, you know you have this, um, problem.  You are hooked on seeking the little electronic “jackpot”.

So try to understand: if you are often checking in electronically, you may be conditioning yourself in an inauthentic way to develop pattern… a bad habit.  Your pattern may be:

  • Interrupting your flow, your life balance at a low minute-to-minute level
  • Reducing your ability to focus on a single task
  • Making interruptions rise in priority simply because they are newer
  • Changing the nature of yourself in other ways: more rude, less social (in person), less aware of your external world (missing opportunities and observations), and more responsive to requests and updates from others.
  • Taking time away from other tasks, due to not sequencing your time efficiently and by spending time on tasks that you might not otherwise do (such as reading emails as the arrive on your handheld device, responding in real time when it is not your top priority… or your input is not needed or productive).  Just because you can respond and you’re in an elevator doesn’t mean you should do it.

Recognizing this type of pattern can help you eliminate this in your life.  Developing – or re-developing – the ability to focus on single tasks can benefit your lifestyle, reduce stress, and make you more effective.  Future posts will detail techniques related to reducing time spent multitasking, while sharing ideas to improve the overall quality of the time you spend each day pursuing your top life priorities.

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