Millennial Musings: Mind Over MultitaskNovember 3, 2018
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, “multitasking” was a skill we put on our résumés with pride. Well I never did, because I didn’t think I was very good at multitasking. All my friends said they listened to music while they studied, but I couldn’t do it. It made me wonder if something was wrong with me. Was there something I could do to become a good multitasker? Did I even want to?
Millennials worldwide have grown up with the myth of multitasking. Over the past few years, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists and brain researchers of all kinds are finding more and more evidence to disprove it.
Multitasking is a Lie
In a book we just read in the Gold Millennial book club, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek says that “true multitasking does not actually exist. Rather, what we are doing is ‘mental juggling’ or ‘rapid toggling between tasks…’ we aren’t doing two things at once, we are merely switching back and forth between things.” He refers to the American Psychological Association and University of California Irvine researchers who found that “when a worker is interrupted, it takes them around twenty-three minutes to return to their original task.”
I read about similar studies in Gary Keller’s The One Thing last July, where he says that researchers call multitasking “task switching” and that they “estimate workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions.” We just can’t do it all – at least not all at once.
Printed before even the table of contents is the Russian proverb “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” In Chapter 5, Keller states point-blank that “multitasking is a lie” and quotes Steve Uzzell as saying “multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”
And then Keller points out something really poignant here as well: our biology may have hardwired us to do two things simultaneously. Our prehistoric ancestors had to constantly scan for predators even while doing all the other tasks necessary for survival. We can obviously chew gum while listening to the radio while driving a car. However, there is a difference between doing two things at once and focusing on two things at once. We may be able to have music playing while we read, but are we hearing the music, or are we hearing the words on the page?
Multitasking is an Addiction
What really deepens the complexity of this is that it goes far beyond a belief that we can multitask and therefore we should. We are actually addicted to it. Keller says that “media multitaskers actually experience a thrill with switching – a burst of dopamine… Without it, they can feel bored.” Dopamine is a chemical our brains produce when we check something off our to-do list, or when we engage in habitual behaviors that make us feel good. Behaviors like smoking a cigarette or eating half a box of doughnuts. We are literally getting a drip of dopamine just by switching from the Facebook app to email.
This chills me to the bone when I think about the school I worked at in September. All of us teachers would talk about how our students were too distractible to focus on anything we were trying to teach. We theorized that it might have something to do with tablets and TVs. My daughter’s first grade teacher told me that he had resorted to projecting educational media from his computer during the entirety of class, regardless of what he was teaching, just to keep his six year olds engaged. Six years old, and our kids are already so overstimulated that they don’t even know how to focus anymore. I thought this was genius, until I realized that it was only feeding into the problem more.
I am finding further validation for my early days of doubt in more and more studies and articles being published every year. Keller’s The One Thing was published in 2013. Sinek’s first version of Leaders Eat Last in 2014. An article entitled “How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health” on verywellmind.com was just published today, October 30, 2018!
Mindfulness is the Cure
Researchers started heavily studying multitasking in the early 2000s, and a decade later we are faced with a clear, foregone conclusion. Gone are the days of the 90s when multitasking was heralded as the hallmark of the modern man. Perhaps we have shifted into a new era, that of the post-modern man! A human who recognizes his own value is greater served when he renounces multitasking and focuses simply, on one thing at a time.
All hope may not be lost for the millennial generation, if we can learn to embrace our new, collective understanding and work hard to shed multitasking’s addictive influence over our lives. But I feel even more strongly that there is great hope for Gen Z and Gen Alpha, my children’s generations. I believe the yoke of responsibility falls upon us as millennial parents to own up to our shortcomings, and teach our children that social media and technology in all its manifestations are just as addictive as alcohol and drugs.
Some things I vow to consciously do at my house to help my children learn how NOT to multitask:
1. I will keep my phone out of sight at all meal times.
2. I will actively model completing one task at a time.
3. I will make eye contact with my children when I speak to them.
I came up with this list because personally, I don’t believe that enforcing rules and making our Screenagers sign contracts is as impactful as emulating self-regulation. Although I do plan to view the next public screening of Screenagers in Denver on November 15th. Field trip anyone?
Millennials love to talk about mindfulness, but how well are we really minding this mantra when we mindlessly scroll? I think we are better that that. In fact I know we are. We have the power to replace multitask with mindful. For our own sakes, and for all the generations yet to come.