Midlife seems to put us in situations that demand multitasking. Whether you're fixing dinner and need to make a late afternoon phone call or have to juggle the competing demands of a job that forces you to monitor emails, phone calls, schedules, and clients, you're pretty much forced to divide your mental bandwidth into portions. The worry, of course, is that you'll do one or all of the multiple tasks badly. Other than in the case of distracted driving, though, multitasking may not be all that bad for you. Surprisingly, it can even help you develop, if not maximize, your powers of thought.
One of the most common forms of multitasking involves keeping your mind or hands busy while you think about or listen to something else. Yes, I'm talking about you -- furtively playing Candy Crush on your phone when forced to sit through a boring speech or meeting. If caught in the act, you proclaim your good intentions, defending yourself with the argument that you can actually listen better when your thumbs are moving than if you were forced to keep still.
This form of multitasking now has a name. According to the concept of microflow, you'll be less bored and more motivated in situations where you'd otherwise just be listening or waiting if you can partially entertain yourself by drawing off mental energy into something you enjoy.
The concept of flow, developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "Chick-sent-mi-hi") refers to the state in which you're completely engaged in what you're doing. When in flow, you're so involved in the activity that you're not aware of your surroundings. Your body and mind are completely in sync, and your level of mental arousal is at a peak.
Achieving flow is now part of the standard training that coaches use with athletes or musicians in order to help them perform at their peak levels of abilities. According to this approach, if you can get your mind and body in perfect unity, feel completely engaged in what you're doing, and imagine yourself as successfully accomplishing your goals, you can succeed at almost anything within your level of capability.
In looking for research on microflow, I happened upon a fascinating study about the experience of waiting, and who best uses boredom to their advantage. For his dissertation at Claremont Graduate University (2011), Orin Davis sampled a group of commuters at Penn Station in New York City to find out how they kept themselves occupied while waiting for the train. Davis observed that the commuters who engaged in activities that kept them mentally alert were less likely to be bored. In the best of cases, these were activities that they engaged in for their own sake (e.g. videogames), not to achieve some other goal (catching up on work). These self-generated activities, called "autoelicitous," turned waiting into productively experienced time.
As it turns out, then, the state of microflow can help not only to mitigate against boredom, but to channel your emotional energies in a positive direction. Maria del Mar Pàmies of the Universitat Rovira (Spain) and colleagues (2015) decided to explore the idea of how consumers can best be kept happy when they're forced to wait in line or on the phone. Pàmies and her coworkers believe that as customers, we ourselves can alter the length of the wait -- or at least, the perceived length of the wait.
To explore this question, the research team conducted in-depth interviews asking consumers
to describe the experience of waiting, both in terms of how they felt about it and what they did to make their wait times as short as possible. Some of the participants also kept diaries in which they recorded their thoughts and behaviors during situations in which they were forced to wait. Consistent with the theory of microflow, the ones who engaged in self-enhancing activities felt much better about their experiences and time spent waiting went faster for them.
Not every situation when you're bored or forced to wait can be solved by microflow, of course. It's not safe to whip out your phone and get in a round of your favorite online game when you're stuck in traffic. However, the more you can channel your energy into productive outlets, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the greater the chances you'll be putting your brain, and time, to good use.
Davis, O. C. (2011). Using waiting time well: Toward a theory of microflow. Dissertation Abstracts International, 72, 509.
Pàmies, M. M., Ryan, G., & Valverde, M. (2015). What is going on when nothing is going on? Exploring the role of the consumer in shaping waiting situations. International Journal Of Consumer Studies, doi:10.1111/ijcs.12244