How to Find Peace in Productivity

Take the madness out of multi-tasking

I fielded a phone call while the pasta was boiling and, with the handset settled in the crook of my neck, began chopping mushrooms.

The pasta boiled over. I forgot what I was saying on the phone. And by the end of it all, I was stressed out.

I am often multi-tasking, and I’ve deluded myself into thinking that: a) I’m pretty good at it, and b) I can get more done that way. Multi-tasking often seems like the most efficient way to work.

Now, I know, it’s not. And there’s plenty of evidence to back that up.

Several studies show that people who multi-task work faster, but produce less. After you’re interrupted by another task — a phone call or e-mail, for example — it takes about 25 minutes to return to your primary job, according to the 2005 study “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work.”

When you’re juggling lots of jobs at the same time, you’re bound to drop a few.

“You aren’t going to perform as well when you’re doing multiple things as you would if you are focused on one thing,” says Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Our brains are built to work hard — you’re not going to burn out your brain — but you might feel tired and you are going to damage your productivity.”

Why multi-tasking doesn’t work

Our ability to multi-task effectively is limited by our inability to make two choices at once. With any task comes a “response selection process” where the brain decides what to do next. When your brain is busy trying to select its next response while you’re also at work on something else, multi-tasking limitations kick in.

If you’re talking on the phone while driving, for example, your brain is first trying to figure out which words to say in the conversation. Everything becomes harder and downright dangerous when it also needs to decide, simultaneously, where to go in the car, Poldrack says.

Research shows that the reaction time of texting drivers is diminished by 35 percent — which is worse than the reaction time recorded by drunk or stoned drivers, according to the RAC Foundation, a British nonprofit that studies driving issues.

When it comes to walking and talking, we also have a hard time paying attention. Only 25 percent of people talking on a cell phone remembered walking by a clown on a unicycle compared to 71 percent of the people who noticed the clown while they were walking with a friend, according to researchers at Western Washington University.

Talking on a cell phone while engaged in any other activity is becoming a serious public health problem, Poldrack says. The numbers of injuries and even deaths resulting from people driving and walking while using a cell phone are increasing. Bottom line: Multi-tasking is hazardous to our health.

Hazards of multi-tasking

Bodily harm isn’t the only negative that results from multi-tasking. Regular multi-taskers are usually the least productive people, Poldrack says. They make more mistakes. And have a harder time remembering things.

If you’re watching television or even listening to music while studying or working, you’re not going to be able to retain as much of the information as if you focused solely on the material you’re trying to learn, he says.

Yet, there is a select group — about 2.5 percent of the population — who may be able to effectively take on more than one task at a time, according to a study from the University of Utah. Chances are good that you and I are not one of these supertaskers.

You can become better at multi-tasking, though, when you are skilled at the task you’re working on, Poldrack says. I’m usually not too bad at holding a conversation while cooking because I get a lot of practice doing it.

But, even with great skill, the pasta boils over. We are limited by our inability to make two decisions at once, which means multi-tasking will never be the most effective way to get things done. In other words, even if you practice driving and talking on the phone, it will never be a safe thing to do.

Manage the multi-tasking

Still, it’s a hard habit for many people to break, because while our brain struggles to process all the information from our simultaneous roles and responsibilities, it kind of likes them, too. The very technologies — computers, cell phones, PDAs — that make multi-tasking possible also stimulate the dopamine system, which causes us to enjoy and even crave things that are new and novel. Cyberspace, cell phones and iPods are portals to new and novel. And, it’s on us to manage all that technology and the other daily demands in a way that keeps ourselves and others safe, healthy and productive.

4 ways to make tasks more mindful

1. Turn off the cell phone while driving, walking and moving. Make driving a mindful activity. Breathe deep. Become aware of the feel of the steering wheel in your hands, the air from the vent, the gray of the road. Enjoy the quiet. Make your commute a spiritual experience.

2. Assess your multi-tasking habits. Note the times and the tools that prompt you to multi-task. Once you realize all the ways it’s cutting into your productivity, you’re likely to do things differently.

3. Develop a practice of meditation or mindfulness. Multi-tasking raises stress and makes it tough to concentrate and focus on everything else, so we need to practice skills that help us calm down and pay attention.

4. Schedule your day with multi-tasking-free times. Set a specific time to check e-mail or take calls. Then, keep your cell phone off until that time. Turn off the e-mail alert, so you aren’t continually interrupted. Shut down the iPod. Set aside time to work quietly and focus on one job at a time.

“People think that they can be good at multi-tasking when really, they can’t,” Poldrack says. “And by multi-tasking, you are behaving in ways that actually keep you from getting better at it.”

So, turn off the cell, quiet the e-mail. Take one thing at a time. Not only will you feel better and be safer, chances are you’ll also get a lot more done.

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Katherine Robertson
Katherine Robertson's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 47 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/30/2008

I so agree! For me, as I live alone much of the time, I have flown unconsciously through many meals while catching up on other things. I finally began noticing my empty plate at the end of the meal and wondering what had happened to my food. Lately I have made eating a mindful practice and exclusive activity. Paying attention to what i am eating is not only good for digestion, it is respectful of the life I am taking to stay alive. Being present with Nature's art forms on my plate as I eat my salad always puts me into a state of awe. The miracle of Nature's design is that the fuel my body needs to serve me is beautiful and delicious and grows naturally from the same Earth I live on. Today, at the end of a meal, I am nourished not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well, conscious of my intimate connection with the larger flow of life. Bon appetit!
Katherine Robertson-Pilling

Dave Crenshaw
Dave Crenshaw's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 8 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/23/2011

Multitasking is a myth. It just plain doesn't exist. Because the truth is we really cannot do two things at the same time—we are only one person with only one brain. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible. What we are really doing is switching back and forth between two tasks rapidly, typing here, paying attention there, checking our "crackberry" here, answering voicemail there back and forth back and forth at a high rate.

Keep this up over a long period of time, and you have deeply engrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity & focus problems. It's little wonder so many people complain of increasingly short attention spans!

To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at

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