The convenience and curse of technology is that we feel we can now accomplish several things at once, or that we can do more things back-to-back with greater ease. It’s made us more productive, right? And that means less stressed, surely? Or, rather, has it actually made us more stressed, less productive, and less resilient?
Multitasking, according to the American Psychological Association, is when we try to perform two tasks simultaneously, switch from one task to another, or when we carry out two or more tasks in rapid succession. We all do it. We’ll respond to our colleague’s email while we stop the car at a red light. We’ll locate the restaurant while we are walking there. We phone our parents while we’re trying to book a cheap flight on the Internet. We have a morning ritual where within the first few minutes of waking we have checked texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the news, and the weather.
Our mantra has become: I will ___ while I ___. When was the last time you did just one thing for an extended period of time?
The problem is, points out yoga teacher Rodney Yee is his video Are You Here Now (On the Treadmill)?, we can feel like we are taking care of a lot of things at once, but actually it is detrimental to our wellbeing, and the opposite of mindfulness.
Slowing Down the Brain
The science is out that multitasking is indeed having a negative impact on our lives. For one, it actually makes us less productive. A study by Dr. Glenn Wilson from the University of London showed that people who multitasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced a temporary drop in their IQ, similar to having missed a night’s sleep. Bombarding our brains with information slows them down.
It also makes us less resilient say scientists. Multitasking has been shown to increase the stress hormone cortisol. A study from the University of Sussex found that frequent multitaskers had less brain density in the region of their brain responsible for empathy, cognitive and emotional control. The constant switching of gears is making us less able to cope with daily life.
Bombarding our brains with information slows them down.
Personally I experienced this myself last year when I decided to take on two extra (and very different) jobs. In spite of each job being fulfilling, and my time being well-managed, after about five months working all three jobs my brain just felt fried, exhausted, and unable to focus. It’s not surprising: It takes the brain around 23 minutes after it is interrupted to return to what it was doing. That means every time we switch to a different task, our brain is having to refocus very intently before it gets back in the flow—and that leads to a build-up of stress.
In older people, multitasking has even been shown to hinder memory. Participants in a study of 60- to 80-year-olds were unable to recall short-term memories after multitasking. Such results are leading researchers to question whether prolonged multitasking is going to cause permanent damage to our brains.
How Can We Stop?
So what can we do to counterbalance multitasking and its negative impact? For one, we should be taking breaks—and not breaks where we are then clicking around the Internet or being distracted by many things at once.
In an article on Quartz about the damage of multitasking it is suggested that these breaks “must allow for mind-wandering, whether you’re walking, staring out the window, listening to music, or reading.” Consider putting technology aside, as according to Quartz: “Social networks just produce more fractured attention, as you flit from one thing to the next.”
While multitasking is being distracted, mindfulness is being wholly present.
Committing longer periods of time to each individual task can also help prevent the brain from becoming overloaded. Whether you are working three jobs, taking on three projects, or have three things on your to-do list, it’s preferable to divide the hours of the day up so each one can receive your full attention before moving onto the next. You should also add in a “proper” 15-minute break between tasks.
Taking part in stress-reducing activities where you can wholly focus on the task at hand also allows the brain to rest during the day. A yoga practice or meditation ritual can be particularly beneficial. One hour to 90 minutes of committing wholly to our practice without checking our phone or having the TV on in the background allows our bodies and minds the chance to return to balance.
“The gift of yoga to our other activities is it lets us do one thing at a time and do it completely from beginning to end,” says Rodney Yee in his video. “Instead of multitasking we are collecting our aspects of who are into doing things mindfully, with ease, and a sense of peace.”
The Antidote to Multitasking
Indeed it is mindfulness that is the perfect antidote to multitasking. While multitasking is being distracted, mindfulness is being wholly present. That doesn’t mean we “mindfully” check emails for three minutes, and then mindfully check Twitter for the next three minutes… Rather it means we start to observe—and ultimately release—the desire we have to constantly check our phones, or our habit to have seven tabs open on the computer that we constantly move between.
Instead of our “I will ___ while I ___” attitude, we instead focus completely on driving rather than thinking about responding to an email at the next light. We take the moment to enjoy our walk to the restaurant, and our conversation with our parents. And we create a morning ritual of peace and calm where we can observe ourselves waking up, rather than one loaded with 15 apps. It is being present in every moment.
Our brains will thank us. And according to researchers we will be less stressed, more productive, and more resilient—which are only some of the many benefits of mindfulness and yoga.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.