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One-Track Mind 

Published in the Health & Wellness Section of JSE Magazine April 2015

By Rachel McGregor  


There are no two ways about it. A particularly frenetic, chaotic day – responding to a deluge of emails, texts, phone calls, requests from clients and colleagues, completing minor tasks and spottroubleshooting, all while trying to get the ‘real’ work done, as in the work we set out to complete at the beginning of the day – can leave us feeling punch drunk; our attention span as skittish as a trapped bird. 


Days such as this appear to be happening to more people, more often – and the effects are becoming more pronounced, more ingrained. 


‘Crazy busy!’ is often our reply to queries about our well-being. There’s just too much to do and too little time to do it in. So we bounce from task to task; a whirling dervish of productivity. Moving, shaking, getting the job done, multitasking up a storm. Or are we? 


The concept of multitasking is, at face value, a straightforward and convincing one: surely, logic dictates, we’re bound to get more done by performing two or three (four, even) tasks simultaneously than by doing one measly thing at a time? It stands to reason. 


Except it doesn’t. 


In fact, whatever benefits you might imagine the practice offers, chances are it is doing the exact opposite. Far from facilitating productivity, research shows that multitasking is more likely to sabotage it. 


Not only can it stunt our ability to concentrate, it may make us slower and more prone to error. 


Researchers from Stanford University found that subjects who were considered ‘high multimedia multitaskers’ (in other words, they regularly divided their attention between several streams of electronic media at once – any combination of email, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Reddit, etc) had an inferior ability to concentrate than their less tech-savvy counterparts. What’s more, they were not as effective at completing one task at a time and switching between jobs. 


‘The low multitaskers did great,’ said Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author. ‘The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along.’ 


The insight that emerged was a fascinating one: the multimedia multitaskers may have damaged their cognitive control because they had trained themselves to be aware of too many things at once, too often. They had impaired their ability to filter out information that was irrelevant to their task, making it harder for them to focus. 


In the late 1980s, ‘multitasking’ became a buzzword in Western media’s conversation around work and time management. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the origins of the word can be found in early computer jargon. It was originally used in the 1960s in computer engineering to describe a microprocessor’s ability to process several tasks simultaneously. 


Framed largely in a positive light, it was touted as the solution to the barrage of demands on our time, attention and energy that has increased at an alarming, cumulative rate in recent decades. 

There’s just too much to do and too little time to do it in. So, we bounce from task to task, a whirling dervish of productivity 


We were told that ’high-functioning’ executives – and successful people in general – had perfected the art of multitasking, and that we could, too, if only we applied ourselves correctly to the many, many, seemingly endless tasks at hand. 


In a human context, however, the term has the potential to be problematic, because even when we consider ourselves to be multitasking successfully – skimming reports while talking on the phone while texting your kids – we’re not really doing more than one thing at a time. What we’re actually doing is orchestrating a series of interruptions, which is like kryptonite to deep focus – the kind of sustained concentration necessary to solve problems or complete intricate tasks. 


Research by the University of London found that workers who are regularly distracted by incoming emails and phone calls can experience an up to 10-point drop in their IQ, albeit temporary. It is a bit of a stretch to claim that multitasking makes us stupid, as some alarmist headlines deduced, but therein lies a kernel of truth. 


‘Without interruption, concentrated work tends to take less time, which frees one up to get the other work done, enabling productivity,’ says Cape Town-based industrial psychologist Ann Werner. ‘Certainly, researchers believe that the greater the concentration on a specific idea or mental experience, the higher the attention density. This, in turn, causes new brain circuitry to be stabilised and the brain thus developed. 


‘Therefore focused attention, it would seem, not only aids brain development but is better for productivity too.’ Neuroplasticity, she adds, means we can create new neural pathways, and if we create pathways that allow for focused and concentrated effort, then deeper, sustained concentration can become habitual. 


That said, the reverse is also true. Consistent distraction – pulling our focus in various directions – would certainly minimise attention density and therefore brain development. 


If impaired concentration and productivity aren’t enough to convince you to at least try your hand at ‘singletasking’, consider the benefits it could have for your health. 


According to a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, workers who were regularly interrupted remained in a constant state of high alert. The subjects responded to the interruptions by working faster, which increased stress, frustration levels (as a result of more mistakes being made) and pressure. 


Of course, we all know how bad excessive stress is for our health. 


‘Stress should be managed with awareness and monitored,’ says Werner. ‘Eustress – or good stress – is vital to getting the work done. This is a normal and healthy situation. 


‘However, if one is constantly removed from the focus of one’s work through deliberate or necessary multitasking – causing a dip in productivity – then the pressure to get the work completed in less time increases. As a result, stress leads to “distress”, which in turn becomes anxiety. 


‘Intermittent stress is manageable. However, should prolonged stress characterise the organisational milieu, this is not sustainable, productivity declines and one’s psychological and physical health may be compromised.’ 

‘Focused attention not only aids brain development but is better for productivity too’ 


So where does that leave us? Completing one task at a time, to the exclusion of all others, is a luxury few of us can afford. Is there a place for multitasking? Or specific circumstances where multitasking can be employed to positive effect, for both our brains and our productivity? 


‘I think it depends on the quality of the work being done at a particular time,’ says Werner. ‘Some work lends itself to multitasking, while other work requires one’s full attention. Breaking attention, for example, when trying to complete a report or research an article, can be frustrating because one’s train of thought is constantly interrupted and the fullness of what one is trying to portray could be lost. For that type of work, concentrated focus and attention is vital to enable productivity.’ 


However, if you’re involved in a fairly straightforward and tedious task, such as data capture, responding to emails or other forms of admin, a little multitasking probably won’t do any harm. 


‘If, in the gaps, you are able to do some filing, chat to a colleague, send a few emails and perhaps Google a recipe for dinner – all the while checking the cricket score – then bravo,’ says Werner. 


Indeed, if we can bear in mind the maxim ‘being busy isn’t the same as being productive’, it may help us discern which of the tasks before us will benefit from multitasking, and which won’t. Indeed, if we take a more philosophical approach, singletasking – the opposite of multitasking – is actually more in line with the Buddhist practice of focusing one’s attention on the present, reputed to have well worn therapeutic benefits. 


‘Consistent focus allows for the embedding of information, where connections and associations are forged and consolidation of material is enabled,’ says Werner. ‘This allows for growth as well as improved attention.’