Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mindless Multi-tasking aka Mental Juggling

Frequently, I hear people (particularly "type A" people like me) say, "I'm a good multi-tasker." Yet, the last several years, I've noticed that I don't actually multi-task all that well. My family is very familiar with the disruption in my brain when I try to do it; they say something and I--at first -- nod, then look up - dumbfounded - and say, "huh?" In trying to keep doing what I'm doing and also hear what they're saying, I suddenly cannot do either.

For a while, this phenomenon confounded me. I thought I was aging too fast or something was wrong with my brain. I call it "mindless multitasking." I'm not actually doing anything well, and I am certainly not doing everything well! It turns out, though, that it isn't only me.

Our bodies are equipped with an amazing limbic response to threat; for example, if food is in your stomach and you get attacked, you stop digesting. Our brains work in a similar way – if you are processing something --like solving a math problem, spelling, following a complex set of directions -- your brain will literally need to stop processing that problem set if it is given a new task.

So we are actually only able to multitask if we are doing something that we have relegated to “automatic.” Examples of automatic behavior: chewing, swallowing, tying your shoes, driving (ooopsie!) If you are doing a task like that, you can multitask. No other time.

Imagine you are speaking with a colleague and
– SMACK -- a bird flies into the window. You lose your train of thought because your brain needed to process the incoming missile. It doesn’t have to be an actual threat. A perceived threat is enough: "Dreena, let's talk about your weight."

I can hear you a
bout to argue that you don't have that many threatening situations in your day. However, those dozens and dozens of little interruptions -- cell phones, children, barking dogs, coworkers -- all must be interpreted by your brain and their threat levels assessed. Fair enough, that assessment is an instantaneous process but nonetheless, you can hear the metaphorical brakes screeching as your train of thought grinds to an abrupt stop.

The trick, therefore, is minimizing the amount of threat reactions you have that interrupt your processing and thus, your creativity. There are some simple things you can do that I will tell you right now: Turn off your cell phone for several hours a day. Spend time in quiet. Unplug, unwind, take a deep breath.

I am convinced that this is why the truly creative people I've known were also the ones who took time to meditate, to take long walks, to sleep a full night's sleep. In fact, when I think of it, they are rarely the same people who claim to be multitasking.

This is my personal next frontier -- to conquer the new world of doing one thing at a time and doing that one thing well. Multi-tasking is truly mindless. I am going for mindful!

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