“Do one thing at a time” is a popular zen adage, but did you know new science backs it up? We as a species do not have the capacity to effectively multitask, at least when it comes to our brains. The human brain is wired to focus on one thing at a time. As a self professed multi-tasker, I must admit this piece of news was initially hard to swallow. How could something that feels so good be wrong? The answer lies partially with dopamine and partially with adrenaline. In the manner of illicit drugs, multitasking gives us a rush. Of course, the rush is not equivalent to something like cocaine but it is in its own way addictive. We get a little high from the feeling of accomplishment, even if our work is just so so. This leads us to want more of this feeling, so we tack more onto our list. If we can accomplish 5 things at a time, can’t we try 8 tomorrow? In the moment we feel like a superhero but over time we become disenchanted and drained. It is hard to sustain superhero status, not to mention our work is sub-par.
Ready to turn a multitasking habit into a thing of the past? Here are a few key ideas to help you make the adjustment:
Upgrade your communication skills: No, it is not possible to read an email, text, and carry on a conversation with your partner all at the same time. What we view as multitasking is actually something called serial tasking. We don’t actually do all these things simultaneously, but rather through a series of stops and starts. And the brain isn’t so great at continually making the transition from thought process to thought process. Decide which conversation is most important and tackle each one at a time. Things will get taken care of quicker and those around you will be appreciative of your full attention.
Know what needs your brain power and what does not: Some skills are so learned that they require little to no brain power to do. Like to walk and listen to a podcast? Not a problem if you are proficient at walking. Want to eat while having a conversation with your best friend? Knock your socks off if you are a confident eater. Yes, in a perfectly zen world we would separate these activities (remember mindful eating from last week?) That said, if you choose to double up activities be smart about what you combine.
Let automation give you your fix: Modern day technology can be a wonderful thing when it comes to getting that dopamine/adrenaline hit. Things like dishwashers, ovens, crockpots, washers, and dryers can help us feel like we are doing multiple things at the same time without trying devoting brain power to multiple projects. You know that feeling when you are writing a blog post while the dishwasher runs, dinner is cooking in the crockpot, laundry is in the dryer, and your child is napping? Well, let me tell you, it feels pretty darn good.
Try it the zen way: If you want to hone your habit of doing one thing at a time, try starting a practice. Make an effort at least once a day to do one simple thing with complete focus, like a meditation on a daily task. Brush your teeth and notice how it feels. Play with your child and give them your complete attention. Pet your dog. Just as with meditation, this practice will strengthen your brain’s ability to focus on a single task.
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