How much praise does a multi-tasker get? A lot. Does everybody want more time in their day? Yes. Is “multi-tasking” praised more than ever? You bet. It’s an exceptional trait if you can answer the phone, make a calculation, add oranges to the grocery list, all while thinking about a business meeting on 5th avenue. Multi-tasking is a buzzword- just like buzzword is a buzzword- that employers use in conjunction with “fast-paced.” Prospective employees use it as well. “I’m a great multi-tasker,” said me on one of my first interviews at a mail sorting/delivery service. I was one of the people who believed I had the power to “deal with more than one task at the same time,” which is the dictionary definition. Until I found myself making mistakes. Immediately my thoughts went to a place of inadequacy or failure. Was I not good at something other people did easily? Then, I learned the truth behind the facade. Give the rest of this article your single attention and think back for a moment. Recollect those times when you really had to multi-task. If you’re like most people, you made a mistake or overlooked something. This is normal. There is actually research and science behind it.
Current neuroscience research demonstrates multi-tasking actually hinders performance. Suppose you are focused on reading the latest news article on the Trump Administration agenda while listening to a presentation that your boss is giving via teleconference. Does your brain truly work on both levels at the same time from the two different stimuli? Nope. The brain cannot consciously attend to two, three, four, or more tasks at the same time. Go on, try it if you want to. Dave Crenshaw, a well-known business consultant and speaker, offers multi-tasking tests here. In all fairness to our good friend the brain, who is still one of the body’s enigmatic mysteries, there are simple tasks we perform simultaneously e.g. walk and chew gum, talk and button up a shirt, etc. Problems arise when the tasks become more complex. For instance, navigating the streets of Baltimore during morning rush while trying to read an e-mail on a smart phone. The complex action of driving (or walking) calls for more attention i.e. acknowledging, evaluating, and acting on stimuli e.g. pedestrians, other cars, stoplights. Add reading the distressingly enrapturing e-mail, which calls for visual encoding, understanding, and assessing. The two tasks are competing for energy from your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what is known as executive functioning. Your brain simply gets pooped out. It’s overworked and cannot take in all the information at the same time. When the brain is fatigued it makes errors. John Medina writes in Brain Rules that a person who is trying to multi-task takes 50% percent longer to accomplish the task and makes 50% more mistakes. Someone working in a sequential or linear order is working faster and more accurately by 50% than the “multi-tasker” according to these facts.
Let’s put this in the context of emotional experience. Anxiety is rampant in our worlds. It can manifest itself as nail biting, handwringing, a racing heart, being overwhelmed and many other ways. I have an anxious mind. When I was younger it was uncontrolled. I was tasked with creating files, editing speeches, and putting together sensitive information. Overwhelmed, I would scramble to get it all done, made mistakes, and would have to re-do the work. Until my no nonsense supervisor whose motto was “Attention to detail” pulled me aside, “Listen. You don’t have to do it all at once. Spread it out. Make a list of what you have to get done. Put a check box next to each thing and check ‘em off as you go.” This simple list is a technique I use to this day. It forced me to focus my energy on the task at-hand while making conscious effort towards getting everything on the list accomplished. When information is flying at you like bats from a Batman Begins cave it’s easy to lose focus. Listing is a solid technique that provides instant gratification once something is checked off. It’s basic, but the basics work. And who doesn’t like instant gratification?
Here’s a more advanced technique that enhances emotional discipline. Before we get there, let’s get a better understanding of what’s happening at the physiological level. Because the different parts of the brain are stimulated and responses are signaling fear-feelings, our bodies enter the well-known “fight or flight” mode. This is an action of the sympathetic nervous system that releases two hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which aid the body in stressful times. Epinephrine, an amino acid-derived hormone binds to receptors that release adrenaline (adrenergic receptors) and creates a bunch of metabolic changes that include the liver, pancreas, muscle, and pituitary gland. Blood glucose and fatty acids are increased to create chemical reactions that result in overall energy production for cells all over the body. Norepinephrine (affects, you guessed it, noradrenergic receptors) can be thought of as dopamine’s same-age more-responsible cousin. It’s a neurotransmitter as well as a hormone and is responsible for heightened concentration. It affects the heart by increasing contractions (pumps more blood), triggers an extra supply of glucose to be released from stores, and increases blood flow to the muscles. Clearly, these natural hormones get you ready to kick ass or high-tail it out of there. Knowing this bit of science helps us lean into anxiety and the bodily feelings by giving us a rudimentary understanding of what the body is preparing for and how. Knowing how the process works and the mechanics behind it will make you more effective in your work, home, and play. You’re not a failure, poor employee, or inadequate person if you can’t multi-task. You’re just being honest and functioning efficiently and enjoyably when you decide you don’t want to waste your time.
Try this: The next time you are anxious about the many things you have to get done at work or at home or at school, own those feelings and see what happens. You might say to yourself, “Right now I am feeling anxious about getting the kids’ Halloween costumes, the upcoming presentation, and my brother’s wedding.” By saying these things to yourself you’re mentally listing the causes. Take a deep breath (or several breaths)- this centers you for the next task. Next, focus on the anxious feelings as they emanate from your center- not the thoughts in your head- the feelings and sensations in the area where you experience the symptoms or signs. For me, anxiety feels strongest in my chest. So, I focus on the feeling in my chest. Spend time with the feeling, let the thoughts go, stay focused on the feeling. You should notice that once you give the feeling full attention, it passes away, like the fleeting moment that it is. You can do this anywhere, the car, kitchen, office. Go ahead, see if it works for you.