Multitasking. The Big Lie.

In addition to being a recovering interrupter, I am also a recovering multitasker.  There was a time, about 15 years ago, when I was a commuter in Northern California, in which I would apply makeup, drink a Venti Mocha, talk on my cell phone AND drive my car between Windsor and Petaluma.   Not too good.  I was under the delusion that I was getting so much accomplished – that I was Super Woman.

As technology exploded in the 90s, there was the imperative to keep 10 balls in the air at one time, and it hasn’t stopped. Dr. David Rock has busted the multitasking myth with his book “Your Brain at Work.” In the book he compares your frontal cortex which is the size of a postage stamp and where you make all your decisions, to a stage in a theater.  And this stage is not the size of Madison Square Garden or even Carnegie Hall.  It’s more like a puppet theater with room for about three hand puppets max.  In Dr. Rock’s analogy, your frontal cortex is being bombarded with actors trying to get on stage.  And the more actors you have on stage, the more your decision-making diminishes.  My husband takes this analogy literally.  I ask, “why were you up at 4 AM?”.  He replies, “all the actors rushed the stage”. For each additional task (actor) on stage, the more your performance drops.

Christine Rosen, who wrote the article “The Myth of Multitasking,” agrees with Dr. Rock and says that the result of multitasking is a 10-point drop in IQ or twice the drop as for marijuana users. And we all know that multitasking while driving (you know, like applying make up and talking on your cell phone) is worse than drunk driving.  Tsk, Tsk.

So here are a few steps to bring us back on the road to monotasking:

1. Clear. As in clear all the clutter. I have been letting my magazine subscriptions lapse.  I don’t get the local newspaper anymore.  Set the timer and take 10 minutes to clean out your kitchen junk drawer, your closet or your car.  De-cluttered means less distractions.

2. List.  Close your office door and make a list.  Do a brain dump of everything you want or might want to get done takes a lot of actors out the mix and off your “stage.” If I’m in class and just remembered I need shampoo from the store, that bottle of shampoo is going to sit on my stage (maybe) and trip up my other actors.  Do a brain dump to get it off the stage.  Or better yet, get Wunderlist (a wonderful free app for making and organizing task lists) and put it on your grocery list.

3. Focus. This is the hard part.  Pay attention to the task at hand.  If you are on a conference call and start going through your email; you are not listening.  You are reading email.  If reading email is more important, then hang up the phone.  If the conference call is more important, then shut down the email.  You are going to have to start making choices.  So choose.

4. No.  You’re going to have to do it.  Turn off the TV.  Send it to voice mail.  Don’t go to the conference.  Get off the committee.  I can see you rolling your eyes but it’s true.  Just because you can check email 24/7 doesn’t mean you have to.  The world will still be there tomorrow.  Just say NO.

5. Imperfection.  Do it imperfectly at first.  It’s OK.  It’s fine if you back slide a little.  Small messy steps are more important than no steps.  There is going to be that phone call you were waiting for as you’re driving north on 101.  Maybe you can pull over and take it.  Maybe you can explain and call them back later.  Don’t beat yourself up.

6. Meditation. Taking just a few minutes a day to meditate can make a huge difference in your ability to focus.  Lydia Dishman writes in a article for Fast Company, “It takes only five minutes a day and plays to a common theme in our information-deluged culture. Start by picturing a TV screen with a news ticker running along the bottom”.  Find some ways to fit meditation into your schedule and your ability to focus or laser in on one task will improve.

The fact that you’re aware and trying will help you make more effective and smarter decisions.  Sometimes a shampoo bottle will come rolling onto the stage.  It’s OK.

Are you putting your best cast on the stage or is it full of shampoo bottles?

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