The day the dog started barking whenever I flipped open my cell phone, I knew something was wrong. I’d had hints before, of course: Kids who didn’t feel listened to, work details I couldn’t remember, even a seriously stubbed toe when I tried to push a laundry basket across the floor with one foot while holding two trash cans in my arms.
But when the dog objected to his daily walk being turned into a strolling phone meeting, it dawned on me that my terrific get-it-all-done, multitasking lifestyle–an approach I took great pride in–had somehow soured.
I’ve always been busy and ambitious, the kind of person who keeps mental track of every task accomplished throughout the day. But during a hectic decade raising kids while trying to keep my career and life afloat, my multitasking inclinations morphed into a cross between a parlor trick–look at me!–and an extreme sport.
Folding clothes, talking on the phone with an editor on a headset, and nursing a baby all at the same time transformed household drudgery like laundry into a type-A accomplishment. I started to push the limits, and each new technology helped me along. Why not watch a movie and answer email on the same screen? Why not check voice mail with one ear while listening to my daughter read aloud with the other? I became the kind of person who would never do one thing if I could possibly do two–with three and four as my ultimate goal. My husband would come home having simply worked a job, while I wrote articles and took care of babies and–get this–made homemade bread to boot.
The price to pay
But despite my self-congratulatory attitude, I knew things weren’t perfect. As I hurriedly skimmed rather than read books and magazines, I had the sense that focusing on multiple tasks was starting to short-circuit my attention span. I even had moments of clarity when I saw that my much-cherished efficiency looked a lot more like, well, rudeness. But I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Life had to go on, didn’t it? There was too much to do for me to devote all my attention to one thing.
Or was there? Even as I continued to sort my mail while driving, an increasing amount of research began to surface showing that this kind of behavior was not only (obviously) dangerous, it wasn’t even saving me much time.
It’s true: Studies at major universities have started to chip away at the very attributes of multitasking that the super-busy, super-efficient hold most dear. This research suggests that multitasking pushes the brain to work in ways that end up making it slower and more error prone than good, old-fashioned focusing. Multitasking also impedes our ability to remember or to learn.
But if it doesn’t make us more efficient or better, why does multitasking remain so appealing?
According to Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap (Ballantine, 2006) and a psychiatrist who specializes in ADD/ADHD, people multitask not out of a desire for efficiency but because it has become a self-perpetuating habit. Like most habits, Hallowell says, multitasking is an easy thing to get hooked on, and hisdescription of how it happens hit a little too close to home for me.
“It’s fun, and there’s a little adrenaline kick in doing so much at once. Plus, it is a status symbol in our country to be super-busy, when it should be a status symbol to be relaxed.”
Need more evidence? Just look at the emphasis our society places on expensive devices that allow us to do more and more, says Hallowell, who adds that people often say their electronics and agendas control them, rather than vice versa.
As a result, compulsive multitaskers tend to spend a whole lot of time in what Hallowell calls the F-state: “It means you are frenzied, frantic, fearful, forgetful, and frustrated.” Hallowell says people worry that he is going to tell them to get rid of their BlackBerry. But he says technology isn’t the problem–the craziness comes from within.
Kick the habit
Hallowell’s No. 1 solution to the F-state: Break the multitasking, super-busy habit. If you need a role model, Hallowell fits the bill. He decided to stop multitasking shortly after he realized he was panicking during a rural lakeside vacation because the rotary phone took too long to dial. “It took only seven seconds, and I couldn’t stand it,” Hallowell says. “I realized that I was training my brain to be chronically impatient.”
He has given up multitasking completely (guilty exception: occasional cell-phone use in the car), and it hasn’t impacted his productivity one bit.
Inspired, I began my multitasking fast on a Monday morning last spring. During a seven-day period, I decided, I would rigidly adhere to a singular schedule. I would never do more than one thing at a time. No chatting on the phone while I cooked, no email/ paperwork/lunch-hour combos, no jumping around from writing to laundry to research, and no doing leg lifts and sit-ups while I helped the kids study their spelling words. To keep myself from simply bouncing from one thing to another, I divided my day into half-hour blocks, allotting time for writing, phone calls, email, and so forth.
Friends said I couldn’t do it. And to tell the truth, at first I couldn’t. In fact, I couldn’t even start doing it. I postponed the beginning of my fast by several days because I had too much to do–a telling indication of how little I believed I could accomplish if I were hamstrung by having to do one thing at a time.
Then, when I finally started, I had to give myself a do-over day to get into the groove. My first slipup: I answered my cell phone while driving and taking my oldest daughter out for lunch to celebrate a recent accomplishment. “Are you really supposed to be doing that?” she asked with a smirk. “Aren’t you supposed to be paying attention to me?” And then at work, while I was on my designated writing time, I checked my email twice (and it hadn’t even beeped at me yet) just to be sure nothing was there. My notes from this day already indicated a dropping of standards. Maybe this should be my week of just trying to live with focus, rather than actually doing it? I thought.
But the next day, I remembered and pulled over to the side of the road before answering my cell phone and just sat there, talking to a friend who needed help strategizing a job interview. It felt strange to see everyone else buzzing by me on the road, but kind of good, too. I was totally focusing on another person, something I was slowly realizing I did way too infrequently.
I had a similar experience that night, as my family and I watched Planet Earth for the first time. As I sat on the couch (just sat, didn’t pay bills or pair socks), I had a sudden inspiration to get up and grab my laptop and research documentary-filmmaking camps. Then I stopped myself, remembering that my designated activity for that hour was watching a film with my family. Having not simply sat and exclusively watched a film in, well, at least a year, I was stunned at how much fun it was and startled by the conversation we could have as we watched. Who knew?
After this, I did. And it made the rest of the week much easier to pull off. By the middle of the week, I was happily turning off distractions like the radio or the cell phone and reveling in a new sense of control. I didn’t add much to my week in terms of the number of accomplishments I could check off my list, but I certainly didn’t lose anything either. Instead, each thing I did became just slightly…better.
My conversations on the phone, and even in person, became less disjointed. My reading and research became more concentrated. Even little things like my cooking improved. I realized how often I had been checking things off a mental list, excusing the inadequacy with which I performed them, all in the name of expedience and efficiency. (They aren’t the best muffins, but at least I made them; we didn’t talk long, but at least I called.) I had been trading quality for quantity, all in the name of being–and perhaps appearing–as busy and important as everyone else.
By the time the week was over, what had begun as a fast–a week of giving up something I thought I needed but had decided to do without temporarily–didn’t seem like one anymore. Did I really need to be distracted and forgetful, stressed and overbusy to feel proud of myself?
Like anyone who has kicked a bad habit, I have moments when I am tempted to lapse into my old ways. But for the most part, my new single focus has been delightfully eye-opening. As I write this, I can see that I now have four new email messages. And look at this new trick of mine: I’m not going to read them for 20 minutes.
Barbara Rowley has written for many national magazines, including Parenting, Outside, Health, and Family Fun.
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