From Multi-Tasking to Mindful-Tasking

Our ability to focus on different things is one of the strengths of our truly incredible brains. It's a skill we would definitely not want to lose. However, psychologists and neurobiologists have both shown that we pay a price when we multitask.
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In a recent press interview with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, I was struck by her response to how she managed her roles as corporate leader and mommy. For Meyer, effective self-management comes down to a combination of setting priorities and focus.

Most recently, Mayer made two significant directional changes at Yahoo. These changes involved alterations to Yahoo's home page and the company's remote workforce. Since Yahoo's existing homepage had a old, cluttered look, Mayer decided to create a simple, clean interface for the Yahoo homepage. This helped people focus and connect with the information they needed quickly and easily.

Mayer also eliminated remote positions at the company. Employees who previously worked from home would be required to come to the Yahoo offices every day. Since working from home can lead to lack of critical human interactions and potential distractions, Mayer decided that it's essential for employees help reshape the organization's culture in a work environment that would maximize productivity and Focus. While new technologies have given us access to the sum of human knowledge, global mobility, improved social connectivity and the expansion of our visual world, the digital age has also left us saddled with many distractions.

When we operate vehicles, text, use computers, make phone calls and attend meetings, we are subconsciously juggling different tasks and ranking them based on their perceived importance.[1] The same applies when teams work in the emergency room; we have to prioritize different tasks and manage them with different levels of focus. This appears to be multitasking. It really is what Dr. Jim Taylor calls "serial-tasking." Rather than engaging in simultaneous tasks, we go from one task to another to another in rapid succession.

Our ability to focus on different things is one of the strengths of our truly incredible brains. It's a skill we would definitely not want to lose. However, psychologists and neurobiologists have both shown that we pay a price when we multitask. Since the depth of our attention governs the depth of our memory and thought, multitasking can reduce our ability to understand and learn. While we are able to do more when we multitask, we learn less. As we juggle an increasingly-large number of different tasks, we start to pay a price in our cognition. [2]

The modern world has amplified the natural business of life with a variety of networked gadgets. These networked gadgets provide us with important information; however, they also bombard us with lots of trivial, irrelevant information. This endless barrage of data interrupts our train of thought and impacts our ability to focus. [3] Over time, this constant onslaught of Facebook updates, Twitter alerts and other low-value information robs us of our ability to devote time to more attentive types of thinking that give us richness in our intellectual lives. [4] Without these moments of clarity and focus, we lose modes of thinking like introspection, contemplation, concentration and reflection. The less we practice these skills, the greater the risk they may atrophy.

The negative effects of multitasking are reflected in our daily workplaces. According to a 2005 article by the Families and Work Institute, approximately one out of three employees in the United States report that their workplaces are too hectic and busy to give them time to reflect or process the jobs they do. [5] [6] According to the University of California and the Harvard Business School, constant interruptions in one's personal or professional life can lead to stress, frustration and reduced creativity. [7] [8] Surprisingly enough, people who multitask on a regular basis are unable to focus on what's truly important in life, compared to those who multitask on a rare basis. According to Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, people who multitask frequently are "suckers for irrelevancy." [9]

Does gender matter? I want to dispel the myth that women inherently are superior multitaskers. This is just not true. According to Thomas Buser of the Tinberger Institute, people who were forced to multitask perform significantly worse than those forced to work sequentially. [10] And these results do not differ by gender. Women suffer as much as men when forced to multitask and are actually less inclined to multitask when being free to choose. However, Offer reported that working mothers spend nearly 10 more hours per week multitasking than do working fathers. [11] What's most interesting is that only mothers reported negative emotions, feeling stressed and conflicted when they multitask. By contrast, multitasking was a positive experience for fathers.

There are several theories on the how of human information processing and why multitasking is virtually impossible. One comes from the work of Dr. Rene Marios at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Marios' work suggests that "response selection bottlenecks" occur in very specific parts of the brain that limit what we can perceive and what we can act on when we try to multitask. [12] In other words, it takes more time for the brain to switch among tasks than it would have to complete one and then turn to the other. Researchers have examined multitasking and learning. It is clear multitasking changes learning. Mayer concluded that learning new information is impossible when multitasking. Learning that does occur is more likely to be superficial and not placed in the region of the brain that is optimal for storing and recalling information, which may impact long term retention.

Team and personal relationships can also suffer from diffused attention and fragmented thought. While new technologies can enhance social connectivity, increasing the breadth of our social relations at the cost of their depth can be detrimental. Your Twitter and Facebook feed doesn't just eat up an hour or two of your time every morning. Instead, it plugs you into a widely-expanded social network of superficial relationships. While there are more ways to connect with others, our ability to form deep and meaningful relationships is on the decline. [13]

There are serious negative health consequences to multitasking as well. Constant multitasking can lead to chronic stress, depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder (ADD). [14] In particular, high levels of stress can increase an individual's risk of heart disease and stroke. [15] Ed Hollowell aptly stated that people are experiencing a "severe case of modern life. But their distress is very real, individuals and their organizations are suffering too. A workplace that becomes toxic in a hurry. People may be meeting their numbers, but they're not as creative, flexible, humorous or innovative as they might be." [16]

Multitasking. When people are frequently diverted from one task to another, they work faster, but produce less. According to Gudith, after 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people report significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort and pressure. [17] Finally, excessive use of technology (inability to "unplug") reduced workers' intelligence in a study by Hewlett-Packard. [18] Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ -- more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana.

Fortunately, there is a solution, what I call "mindful-tasking." We are in control of the information we receive. By honing the flow of data to only that which is truly important, it's possible to improve focus in our everyday lives. However, reducing information overload doesn't require us to abandon our favorite technological tools. Instead, we need to find effective ways to block or minimize exposure to superficial and irrelevant information. The best way to do this is through mindfulness in combination with an awareness of the danger of multitasking we can achieve a more favorable and effective environment at home or workplace.

Mindfulness is not relaxation, a religion nor emptying the mind of all thoughts. Instead, mindfulness is the cultivation of focused experience. Being mindful involves conscious awareness of your thoughts, body sensations, feelings, and surroundings an open attitude. When we are mindful, we are simply being focused without the layer of our usual judgments and commentary (often negative) of ourselves or others. Mindfulness is a deliberate way of paying attention to what is occurring as it is happening. In his book Full Catastrophe Living (1990), John Zinn, M.D. defines mindfulness as: "Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." Mindfulness allows gives you the ability to observe yourself in a new light and can change the way your mind operates.

Tips for Mindful-Tasking

  • Re-consider your current purpose and intent in life, at home and in the workplace. What matters. [19]
  • Realign your purpose and intent by first creating a "don't do list" instead of a "to do list"
  • Inventory the inevitable recurring multiple tasks, demands, challenges, issues and situations in your life
  • After identifying and embracing your inevitable demands, apply the proven strategy we use in the ER: triage. It is an ideal strategy to manage predictable and particularly "high costs" events. Triaging involves establishing a plan for executing the events/task along with contingencies. Just imagine the anticipatory angst of an ER team without an ER specific triage strategy for the various patients who will present with chest pain potentially having a heart attack.
  • Find time during your day to turn off all electronic devices like computers and cellphones. It can be done.
  • If you are a fan of Facebook, try turning off status updates for acquaintances and people you don't know very well. Set up your Facebook to only show updates from a handful of close friends and family members.
  • For Twitter users, try unsubscribing from Twitter feeds that don't provide you value. Instead of receiving dozens of useless tweets every hour, try to limit your Twitter feed to accounts that provide relevant, meaningful and insightful information that you can use to enhance your life.
  • Throughout your day, I invite you to execute tasks mindfully. Stop, focus, and on purpose give full attention to each person or task you must manage. [20]
  • A simple way to begin to better understand and cultivate the skill of mindfulness is by applying mindfulness skills to something we all do daily. Lillian Cheung's book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Living is a great read to begin the journey. [21]
  • For many of us, the new ways in which we think and work can rob us of our ability to have meaningful, insightful thoughts. Shallow, short-term decision making can lead us on less than desirable paths in both our professional and personal lives. It's important to find a healthy balance between a one-track mind and fragmented thought. Consider mindful-tasking.

What do you think about the concept of mindful-tasking?


[1] Rubenstein J, Meyer DE, Evans JE. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 27(4):763-797

[2] Crenshaw, Dave. The Myth of Multitasking; How "Doing it All" gets Nothing Done. Jossey-Bass 2008.

[3] Healy M. (2004). "We're All Multitasking, but What's the Cost?" Los Angeles Times, July 19. Retrieved April 21, 2012 (

[4] Hewlett-Packard. (2005a). Abuse of technology can reduce UK workers' intelligence.
small & medium business press release, April 22. Retrieved March 1,2013

[5] Families and Work Institute (2005) Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much

[6] Mark G, Gudith D, Klocke U. (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress Proceedings of ACM. Retrieved from:

[7] Amabile, Teresa M., Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer. "Creativity under the gun." Harvard business review 80, no. 8 (2002): 52.

[8] Paridon HM, Kaufmann M. (2010). Multitasking in work-related situations and its relevance for occupational health and safety: Effects on performance, subjective strain and physiological parameters. Europe's Journal of Psychology. 6(4):110-124

[10] Buser, Thomas, and Noemi Peter. "Multitasking: productivity effects and gender differences." (2011).

[11] Offer, Shira, and Barbara Schneider. "Revisiting the Gender Gap in Time-Use Patterns Multitasking and Well-Being among Mothers and Fathers in Dual-Earner Families." American Sociological Review 76, no. 6 (2011): 809-833.

[12] Tombu MN, Asplund CL, Dux PE, Godwin D, Martin JW, & Marois, R. (2011). A Unified attentional bottleneck in the human brain. PNAS, 108(33), 13426-31.

[13] Families and Work Institute (2005) Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much

[14] Faraone, Stephen V., Joseph Biederman, Thomas Spencer, Tim Wilens, Larry J. Seidman, Eric Mick, and Alysa E. Doyle. "Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adults: an overview." Biological psychiatry 48, no. 1 (2000): 9-20.

[15] Cooper, Cary L., and Judi Marshall. "Occupational sources of stress: A review of the literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill health." Journal of occupational psychology 49, no. 1 (2011): 11-28.

[16] Archer, Michelle (16 April 2006). "Too busy to read this book? Then you really need to". USA Today.

[17] Mark, Gloria, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. "The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress." In Proceedings of the twenty-sixth annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp. 107-110. ACM, 2008.

[19] Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.

[20] Hallowell, E. M. (2007). Crazybusy: Overstretched, overbooked, and about to snap! Strategies for handling your fast-paced life. New York: Ballantine Books.

[21] Cheung, Liliam. (2010) Savor. Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. New York Harper Publishers.

For more by Carol J. Scott, M.D., click here.

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