Until recently I believed that everyone was capable of multi-tasking, certainly as a mother I had to stop what I was doing in order to cope with an unexpected crisis. I believed I did more than one task regularly as I cared for children, cooked food, shopped or whatever else was necessary throughout a day. When I worked I was expected to multi-task in order to complete my job. However, the human mind isn’t designed to constantly multi-task and gradually problems will occur.
The human mind is design to focus on tasks but, in times of danger/crisis, it will quickly switch into ‘flight or fight’ mode to assess a situation and decide how to deal with it. This causes adrenalin (and norepinephrine, which is also used to contract low-blood pressure) to pump through our bodies to provide the extra boost we would need to deal physically with the situation. However, in our more sedate lives we do not use this adrenalin properly so it is absorbed within the body. To constantly be flipping into this ‘flight/fight’ mode also gives us a lift, which means that after a while our bodies actually crave this adrenalin fix. However, in most situations the body does not run a mile or attack an enemy, maybe as a mother we tend to continue through with some physical activity for example, rushing into the garden to stop water attack or separating children, but sitting at a desk answering the phone whilst still typing at your computer is not a physical activity. Unused adrenalin can cause problems including tension, headaches, acid indigestion, anxiety, stress, even back pain! I had no idea of this when I was working and just felt a failure. It wasn’t until I was recently doing a mindfulness course that I understood my body had in fact been reacting naturally to the pressure I was working under.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t change activities when you are working. A phone rings you need to answer it, but we need to stop trying to, literally, do two things at once. The computer screen should be ignored and the phone answered and the caller dealt with. Changing focus is not the same as multi-tasking. You remain calm and accept the need to change rather than invoking the ‘flight/fight’ mode. You focus solely on doing one task well, then pick up the original task and re-focus on it. It may seem that you’re losing time but in reality by trying to focus on two things at once you’re actually doing two tasks badly rather than one task well. I now find myself saying to people, ‘Let me finish this and I will be with you’ when people are pushing me to do two things at once. Recently though one lady did say to her husband, ‘she’s deaf’, when I didn’t respond to her request for ‘cashback’ when I was still scanning her shopping. As cash can not be given until shopping is paid for I concentrated on task in hand. After I dealt with her shopping I turned to her husband and said, ‘I understand you would like cash back.’ I have also had to mention, ‘I’ll do that when I’ve finished this’ to various people, if people friendly, I’ll add ‘I’m not an octopus’ or something similar. Yes, people expect the impossible but I no longer feel I’ve failed if I can’t give it to them.
I am not perfect and I still find myself doing more than one task at a time. At present the TV is on and I’m writing this, to be honest I’m not interested in the programme so I am focused on this piece. However, my husband, who is playing a game on his i-pad, wanted to watch the programme. We are living in an age in which we consistently do several things at the same time, but the truth is we’re really skimming tasks and developing bad habits. Too many people suffer from stress-induced illnesses. Hopefully recognising that multi-tasking is, in fact, a myth will cause others to step back and reassess how they work. Prioritising, focusing and communication are the keys to develop in order to work stress-free and provide the job performance your company actually needs.
Clifford Nass, “How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPHJMIOwKjE
Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance delivered by Monash University (free on-line course)
Image – Richard Armitage demonstrating fight principle as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in BBC Robin Hood