The Myth of Multitasking


Multitasking is a catch-all word that signifies success, adaptability and, above all, is a common descriptor on hopeful job applicants’ resumes. Friends, do you want the truth?

Our brains don’t like to multitask. In fact, they hate it and reject it. They’re simply not wired to behave in such a manner. 

Research shows that humans can only think about four things at once. And if you think you are multitasking oh so successfully, chances are you’re just not. You just spilled your coffee while you looked at that guy crossing the hall, checked an email, mistyping a word and meanwhile, while trying to hold a conversation on the phone, you didn’t hear the last two sentences. You look busy and productive, sure. How is this really going?

It’s impossible to multitask. Your brain will accommodate multiple requests by doing what’s called “spotlights.”  At most, the brain may dual-task, and divides and conquers to complete those two tasks. But two complex tasks are the limit. If you add a third task, the prefrontal cortex will simply discard one of the tasks. It’s no dummy. The results show that the brain has only two hemispheres available for task management and can only take two tasks at a time. Simply put, it needs both hemispheres to successfully complete a task.

Unless you have superpowers and several arms…well, humans are just not equipped to multitask.

As further evidence, I kid you not, while writing this post I attempted to cook dinner and burned it. Oh, what a bumble! Personally, I know that I am drained when I take on too many tasks and it usually takes me longer to complete any one task. There’s research on that, too.

Multitasking is regarded as a badge of honor by today’s youth and likely encouraged as the new “norm” by their peers. A study out of Stanford identified two separate groups, “heavy media multitaskers” (HMMs) and “light media multitaskers” (LMMs). Both groups were asked to decipher relevant information from the environment and irrelevant information based on memory, all the while switching their tasks. You guessed it, the heavy group did worse. What’s more, those who multitask actually think they’re great at it!

While attempting to do a task, I’m convinced the mind can think about a whole host of things completely unrelated to the task at hand. My yoga teacher suggests that you can think about 13 things at once and I believe her, but often it feels like much more than that. Do you have moments when you feel your brain might explode with too many thoughts flying around?

Here’s a test. Next time you feel overtaxed with too many thoughts, write them down in a list. No need to make them perfect, just them out of your head and on paper. 

Actually writing them down will slow your thinking, but what’s more, you’ll see you may not really be thinking of as many things as you feel. It’s more likely that anxiety is playing a role. It likes to get in the way. Anxiety is very bossy and is also responsible for shallow breathing and irrational thinking.

So, okay the simple solution must be to think and do one thing at a time, right? It turns out, people may have more trouble with that one. I have some ideas about this. Tune in next week, when I talk about my new passion. Breathing on purpose.

In the meantime, if things seem a little harried, stop and check in. Give yourself grace. You’re just human, after all.

photo credit: Multitasking in the Park via photopin (license)
photo credit: High-Octane Villain via photopin(license)


Write Like No One Is Reading

My seven-year-old son, Skyler, has a behavioral chart at school. The main obstacle to achieving four stickers, the highest level of success, has been narrowed down to mostly one thing, completing his journal. He either doesn’t write in the journal or doesn’t read the journal out loud to the class when requested. I’ve felt bewildered by this. I had always kept a journal as a child because I wanted to. My thoughts were written for my eyes only and I wrote what I felt I needed to write.

I haven’t kept a journal for a long time, and thought about doing so once again for my son, but also for myself. It’s been a while since I’ve written just for me; thoughts that were not going to be published, myself the only audience, no edits, no proofing, and usually no re-reading. I simply wrote to write them, to get them out of my head. I kept journal after journal and later they ended up in a box or a drawer. Unfortunately, most of the journals from my adolescent years have vanished. Looking through some journals, I realized I haven’t written one since 2006, a journal I kept during the first years of my son’s life in which every entry began with, “Dearest Holden.” Someday he may want to read it. I’m sure it’s gushing with sentiment that would probably make him squirm today. But maybe someday.

A journal for my firstborn. I thought he might like the colored paper.
A journal for my firstborn. I thought he might like the colored paper.

Generally speaking, journals are private. Where would crime drama be without the mysterious diary? It’s all in the diary. There you’ll find the clues. And hands off, NSA. They can’t touch this one. In this age of spontaneous, digitized reactions, private thoughts maybe are not recorded as they once were. Flipping through a few of my journals, I encountered pictures and receipts, like spontaneous, magical gifts of my past.

My son’s in-class, daily journal is seemingly more of an assignment, usually with questions about his weekend, maybe a field trip. Usually, he doesn’t share the topics or what he’s written, except in the case of this one:

Homework is…

His response:

 Homework is frustrating and tiring, but helps me learn.

Pretty good! I would give that sentence a 4 on their 4-point scale. I’m not sharing to boast like a proud mommy, but merely to express that, perhaps, it’s not writing that is the issue. He’s anxious, he’s maybe even fearful about being incorrect. I’m not sure, really. What I don’t want to see happen is for fear to get in way of him being able to enjoy writing, and to write as a means to express himself. Because he can and because he wants to.

A few journals from the past. The pink one on top from 1991, detailing a cross-country trip before I was married. I looked through that one for the first time today.
A few journals from the past. The pink one on top from 1991, detailing a cross-country trip before I was married. I looked through that one for the first time today.

I’ve always have the most fun dancing when no one is watching. As a trained dancer, I could be consumed with the technique of a step. But as a child, I spent a lot of time dancing alone, with joyous abandon, and then my mother would put me on the spot in front of tens of people. I would freeze, sometimes cry. I don’t know why I froze, I knew I could dance. I had tons of lessons; I loved to do it, yet I couldn’t when asked. I stumbled. I couldn’t deliver what she wanted.

Writing can be much like that with the pressure to perform on cue. As I ponder my son’s anxiety, I’m reminded of my own. So now I’m giving myself permission. I’m going to write in my journal like no one is reading. Because I can and because I need to.

My new journal. It's blank and waiting for words.
My new journal. It’s blank and waiting for words.

Do you have a journal? What do you like to write about? Or, hey, you don’t have to tell me. You can keep it all to yourself.