Yesterday I began a quest to stop multitasking.
Now, normally I look down my nose at this kind of self-help “life coaching” nonsense, so let me explain.
Have you heard about Ingress yet? It’s a massive multiplayer game developed by Google for your smartphone. As a player, you use your phone to claim territory for your team, but to do so you have to physically walk around the real world and interact with your smartphone near landmarks and works of public art. It’s a neat concept, a kind of cross between geocaching and RISK, and has the bonus of forcing the player to exercise.
The problem is that in the seven days I played Ingress, it took over all of my outdoor time. Any time I was on the move, whether commuting to work, going to a movie with my girlfriend, or just out for a stroll, I was staring at my phone and looking for the next Ingress portal to hack. At home, I would get alert notifications from the game–someone was attacking one of my portals! Time to recharge my resonators!
For the last few weeks, I’ve been fighting a listless feeling. You might call it ennui, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s anything that… French. Having finished a novel, I have an unfamiliar abundance of free time, but I can’t seem to concentrate on any new projects. I’ve tried reading, watching movies, making videos, and tackling some tasks at home, but within minutes my mind is wandering. When I try to read articles, whether online or in the newspaper, I’ll get 300 words in and suddenly click over to something else, for no real reason other than my brain needed something new. It’s frustrating as hell. I’ve considered that the cause may be depression or anxiety (or anxious depression), both of which I’ve fought in the past, but this doesn’t feel that way. There’s something else to it.
Yesterday I went to lunch with a couple of coworkers. As we walked, I was playing Ingress AND carrying on a Facebook chat with a friend. That was when I realized things had gone too far–I was doing three things simultaneously, and not really concentrating on any of them. By dividing my attention in so many places, I’m essentially paying attention to nothing.
Recently, a number of studies have looked into multitasking, and their results have been stark and definitive: Multitasking is bad for our brains. It hurts our memories, our concentration, and our ability to filter out information. Even more notable, there are no benefits to multitasking. Researchers hypothesized before their research that chronic multitaskers would develop talents and abilities others would lack–instead, their research showed that multitaskers underperform on every single measure. Lots of people think they are good at multitasking, but that’s like saying “I’m really good at shooting heroin.” It might feel good while you’re doing it, but there’s no positive outcome.
They also found that “multitasking” is really a misnomer. The human brain is not, apparently, capable of handling more than one high-functioning task at a time. What we’re really doing is switching between single tasks, rapidly and repeatedly, and each time there is a cost to our concentration and productivity. Think of a car going back and forth between forward and reverse, slowing to a stop each time before switching gears and accelerating anew. Now imagine the driver proudly bragging that he’s going in both directions at once.
Our world is designed around multitasking. There are TV screens in our car cashboards, after all. We eat dinner in front of the television, we text while we’re conversing, and our web browsers have evolved to display an almost unlimited number of tabs. Anyone who writes, whether professionally or for fun, knows the siren-call of their favorite social network. Your smartphone is a vector for an unlimited number of corporations begging for your attention. I’ll bet at least three new notifications have shown up in the time you’ve been reading this article.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a certain nostalgia for the halcyon days of 2005, back when my cell phone could only handle voice and text. Back then I could hop in the car and be alone with my music and my thoughts, not wondering what Twitter had to say about Ferguson or Pitch Wars, what that Candy Crush notification was about, or whether I had any interesting email.
So what does it look like to try to stop multitasking?
- I disabled almost all the notifications on my smartphone. No more alerts from Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. If I want to check a social network, I have to make a conscious decision to do so. I don’t want them calling to me. I left on my phone and text alerts, meeting reminders, and my work and primary Gmail inboxes. That may still be too much, we’ll see.
- I’ve vowed to only do one task at a time, and to be present in the moment. This does not include passive activities like transportation or exercise–I’ll still listen to music and podcasts while I’m running, and read my Kindle on the train. But no more checking Twitter between paragraphs of the novel, or playing on Facebook while watching TV. If I’m engaged in a task, that’s where my focus will be. This goes double for conversations with other human beings–if I’m talking to a person, that’s the only thing I want to be doing.
- I’m spending more time reading, versus watching television or playing around on the Internet. I just think it’s better for my brain. Rapid changes in topic are inherent to television and the Internet, versus a long-form piece like a novel.
- I’m actively choosing when I start and end something, like reading, instead of giving in to distraction. If I say “I’m going to read this chapter,” then I’m going to read to the end of the chapter before doing anything else–barring some emergency, of course.
- I set up a to-do list at Todoist. A big part of the problem, for me, was that keeping my to-list in my brain alone meant things bubbled into memory at random intervals, and I felt overwhelmed and anxious about what I might be forgetting. By keeping my tasks in one central place, I can be more methodical in getting things done–concentrating on one thing at a time, and finishing before moving on.
- I may take up meditation. I’ll get back to you on that one.
It’s possible, of course, to take all this too far. Consider the account of A.J. Jacobs, who took his multitasking-free month to such an extreme that he would not speak with his wife at the dinner table, or indulge in thoughts unrelated to his task. I’m not going that far–at least not yet. This isn’t some cult thing for me, it’s more like a fitness regimen for my brain.
As for effectiveness, it’s much too early to say. I will say that there are immediate dividends–I feel good about making the change, and I have a sense of control over a life that, only a day ago, seemed to be spinning completely out of my control. Last night when my girlfriend and I were chatting, I closed the laptop and did nothing except talk to her, and I felt like I got more out of that interaction. I even washed the dishes last night, because I actually noticed there were dishes to be done; for once I wasn’t staring at my smartphone as I passed through the kitchen.
My hope is that this mindfulness and focus will over time become second-nature, but I’ll admit that right now it’s a struggle. I have to be patient with myself and settle for small victories where they come. For instance, this article is now roughly 1,300 words, and I wrote the whole thing without looking away once. That’s something, right?