Mindfulness vs the Myth of Multitasking

Everything I have ever achieved has been through Paying Attention (focus, being present). I’ve had a good go at multitasking too, my mind is quick and loves stimulation. Multitasking feels good, it is addictive, but deceptive…read on…

I draw here on an excellent resource by Allan Goldstein, an experienced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. Goldstein states, “If you focus all of your attention on one task at a time it seems logical that the results would be better than if your attention is divided or distracted by other tasks”.

Contrary to a suggestion that our brains are evolving into multitasking machines, recent research in neuroscience shows that our brains are capable of forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity (see Norman Doidge’s masterful book, The Brain that Changes Itself).

Performance suffers as we shift our attention

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” (Thomas Edison)

Goldstein says, “Through my work in the field of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) I have come to regard, that what we commonly refer to as multitasking, does not exist, and that the level of our ability to perform tasks suffers as we shift our attention from one task to another. In fact the empirical data from studies in the field neuroscience is proving that there is no such thing as multitasking!”

Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says “that, for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time when in fact you are not.”

In the PBS Frontline presentation, digital nation, Dr. Clifford Nass is interviewed about his studies at Stanford University, on the performance levels of extreme multitaskers (“these are kids who are doing 5, 6, or more things at once all the time”). Although most multitaskers think they are extremely good at it, the results of Nass’s first of its kind studies are troubling.

“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking! They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests that they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be we’re creating people who may not be able to think well, and clearly.” (Nass, Web)

Distracted workers suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers!

Contrary to some people’s argument that these studies are being done on extreme multitaskers and that most people can juggle two or three tasks at once, there is research showing the opposite in performance. In the Myth of Multitasking, Christine Rosen, writes, “In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard, and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers”. (don’t you love that?)

Effect on learning

I used to regularly meet large numbers of people. I am hopeless learning lines – plays, poems, lyrics – yet after a single brief introduction I could recall at random up to 40 new people’s names at random. Actually my sales teams thought I was a legend for it! But all I did was pay attention – I was very present and focussed on the individual at hand.

“The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember. Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don’t learn as well as if you had paid full attention.” (Poldrack, Web)

Multitasking can negatively affect performance, and lead to increased levels of stress

In her blog article, ‘Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention’, Linda Stone distinguishes between simple multitasking and what cognitive scientists refer to as complex multitasking, to explain her theory of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA).

  1. In simple multitasking each task is given the same priority, e.g. a routine like stirring pasta while talking to our spouse. Here the driving force is to be more productive.
  2. In complex multitasking “we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition”.  One of these cognitive tasks may also seem more important than another, requiring our brains to be focused on it while remaining alert to the several other less important cognitive tasks requiring our attention. Stone continues, “When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially”.

Stone’s CPA is the kind of attention we hold while we are complex multitasking. Keeping our attention in this state of hyper-vigilance is keeping our fight or flight response activated, in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. It is a constant activation of the fight or flight response. The complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation, with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress related diseases.

Research particularly in the field of neuroscience is compiling data that shows multitasking can negatively affect performance, and lead to increased levels of stress.

Managing yourself – bringing MINDFUL awareness

We can focus more on individual tasks by bringing a strong mindful awareness to our actions while performing them. By taking breaks and time outs we can shift our attention back to our senses.


“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”  (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890)

The link between depression, mental pathologies, and lack of mindfulness, is established and frightening.  But Mindfulness is at the essence of Emotional Intelligence.

Success, achievement, fulfilment, resilience, vitality, confidence…. these are the rewards of Mindfulness.

As a long term achiever in sales and leadership, sales revenue and high performing teams are close to my heart. Call on someone who knows what it is to carry risk and to achieve in a bad market.

Watch this space for information about a presentation we are planning on the Science of Mindfulness by a leading expert.