It’s 8:00 am. You’re making oatmeal, helping your son with his homework, getting lunches ready for the family, and the phone rings. Before you know it you’re juggling too many things, all at once, and you feel that your day has already become complicated. This feeling continues at work. You’re writing a report for your supervisor, you receive an urgent email that needs to be addressed, and your colleague pops her head in to remind you that she’s waiting for you to sign off on her project. Again, you’re juggling. When you finally get home from work, dinner’s over, the kids are in bed. You need to answer some emails, so you sit down with your laptop in front of the television. Even in leisure, you’re multitasking.
Multitasking is a computing term that means doing, or trying to do, more than one thing at once. Changes in society seem to have made our lives more complex, and made multitasking seem more necessary than ever. In some workplaces, staff reductions means many office employees are left taking on more tasks than before. E-mail and text communication causes more frequent interruptions. Often both adults in a household are working outside the home, meaning that shared responsibilities of childcare and housework must be done in less time. Walking and texting. Answering emails while we eat lunch. What affect is all of this having? Are we losing focus? Are we more stressed? Are people who multitask more efficient, or are they actually less?
I have never identified myself as an adept multitasker. My patients know not to ask me any hard questions when I’m inserting acupuncture needles. (Once I let them know, they usually comply!) But I have also noticed a tendency in myself lately that concerns me. When I sit down, say, to write an article for a blog post, it’s not long before I’m checking my email. Or my mind wanders and I end up working on a patient case, or watering the plants. The changes in media and our work lives haven’t improved my ability to multitask, but have they diminished my ability to concentrate?
To delve into this further I turned to the recent research on multitasking. Dr. Gloria Mark is a leading expert on work from University of California, Irvine and she studies interruptions and multitasking. So far, she has discovered that the average employee is interrupted and changes tasks every 3 minutes and has a maximum focus limit of 12 minutes. Wow. Her findings show that the tasks are usually resumed on the same day and most within 23 minutes of the interruption. That’s good. But there is a cost as well. People in Mark’s study who were interrupted scored significantly higher stress levels compared to those who weren’t interrupted. This has implications for long-term health, as the stresses of life take their toll on our nervous system, our cardiovascular system, our energy levels, and more.
Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Massachussettes and an expert in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), has seen a 10-fold increase in the number of patients exhibiting ADD-like behaviours, but of a work-induced variety. These patients are irritable, feeling pressured to make decisions quickly, and concerned with declining productivity at work. Hallowell calls this condition attention-deficit trait, or ADT. When we get overwhelmed with incoming messages and overloaded with too many tasks, we are unable to prioritize. This increases our impulsiveness, our distractibility and feelings of stress (is anyone relating to this right now?).
The younger generation is growing up surrounded by technologies like smart phones and laptops that encourage multitasking. Students now do their homework, watch Youtube, listen to music while they text their friends. In fact, seventy percent of people under 35 are online while they watch TV. This generation is probably better able to handle different media at the same time then the rest of us, and it’s possible that it may be less stressful for them. But they aren’t necessarily better at it. A recent Stanford study conducted by Dr. Clifford Nass concluded that multitaskers are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than non-multitaskers. When comparing such things as memory, ability to switch from one task to another and being able to focus on a task, people who did a lot of multitasking didn’t score as well as others.
So if multitasking isn’t improving our performance, why do we do it? Some researchers now link multitasking to dopamine – a feel-good neurochemical. Dopamine is released when we’re stimulated by new things – such as an unread email. Our need for a dopamine “fix” may be driving us to multitask.
Many researchers would suggest that we actually can’t do two things at one time effectively. There is apparently a bottleneck in the brain for decision-making so that when trying to do two tasks, one of them is slowed down. The region in the prefrontal cortex involved in decision-making can only process one decision at a time, in a serial fashion. Therefore when we are doing two things at once there are usually delays or mistakes. This bottleneck theory comes in to play when driving a car and talking on your cellphone. Both can be done at once if neither is too involved (i.e. driving in very familiar territory, while talking to a friend about something mundane) until a decision has to be made such as when approaching a busy intersection. Then, the attempt to multitask can cost you your life.
More stress, less ability to focus … wait! I know how to treat this! Natural health has a lot to offer the ADT generation. Herbal tonics, vitamin supplements and acupuncture can provide strength to a frazzled nervous system. Yoga and meditation are great tools to help quiet a distracted mind. Deep breathing techniques can help with a sense of relaxation. These are tools at my disposal that can help my patients and me become less distracted. And based on the research, I’d also do well to avoid multitasking when I can: ignoring my email in the evening, turning off music when I’m working, and trying, when I can, to resist the allure of the internet as it just adds to my stress and reduces my ability to focus. So the next time I have a question that needs googling, I may just find myself at the public library looking up information in actual books.