Multi-tasking has long been thought to be the litmus test of how we measure the ability to be productive. Corporate America has required this enigmatic skill for decades, which is why, being the not-so-Spring-chicken that I am, I assumed that it was on its way out. Surely companies aren't still "requiring" this?
One quick search on a major job board proved me wrong.
I popped my old job title into the search function, pulled up a posting from one of the larger employers in my area, and quickly found within the job description that they require their qualified candidates to have the "demonstrated ability to multi-task."
That's not a thing.
I know it seems like it is; moving back and forth between 12 browsers, talking on the phone while eating lunch and checking emails, watching television while reading a book. It's giving you the illusion of being "busy." Our entire culture thrives on being busy. It's a type of status symbol. Busy people get more done. Busy people make more money. Busy people are hard workers. Busy people are smarter. The busiest people are the winners!
The problem with this is that it's simply not true.
Our brains can only do so many things at one time. When we try to do more, we're creating stress. Literal stress. Stress hormones are being dumped into our system because we're overloading our brains. After a prolonged period (think years in a stressful job) that stress hormone will have done enough damage to create serious health problems, and even kill you.
Not only is multi-tasking killing us, but it's robbing you of your life. Your brain cannot actually focus on more than one thing at a time, so the process of trying to do that means that you're never really focusing on anything. You'll commonly hear people refer to themselves as having ADD, regardless of actually being diagnosed with it. What's really going on is that they know their attention span is terribly short. Due in large part to the technology available to us, our brains don't know what to focus on, so we end up focusing on nothing.
We're not actually engaged in any of the tasks we're trying to simultaneously juggle, and we're failing at all of them. When we're trying to "maximize our time" by doing too much at once, we're not actually present for any of it. Chances are we'll forget most of what we heard, said, read, and saw. This doesn't make for engaged employees, and isn't that what most employers say they need?
What's worse is that it's affecting our relationships. When we're at dinner with our spouse, and he checks his messages, so then you decide you'll check yours, pretty soon we're not talking and twenty minutes have gone by and you haven't said a word to one another. You're not connecting on any level. Do this during meals, when you get into bed, when you're sitting in your living room, driving in the car. Do you see where this is leading? Couples and families who have nothing to say to one another, and a complete breakdown in communication. This opens the door wide open to so many problems.
What We Can Do Instead
Aside from walking in to human resources and demanding that your job description be re-written (but PLEASE let me know if you try that, I'd love to hear how it goes!), there are several things we can do to combat the temptation to try to multi-task.
Practice Mindfulness - Be present in everything you do. When you're eating. Eat. Chew your food, taste your food, pay attention to your body. You'll enjoy your meal, and eat a whole lot less, as well as notice how your body feels. You'll also understand how the people in your life really feel when you are fully present as they speak to you. I have the feeling a lot of people question why they feel alone, misunderstood, and unheard, even though they have lots of friends and family around. We need to be listening to one another mindfully. Put your phone down when someone is talking to you.
Commit to Yourself - I have a personal rule for myself that I won't check my phone or talk on it while I'm driving (regardless of the fact that we're all supposed to be doing that because it's illegal). I know it probably makes me the least cool person ever that I'm not accessible 24/7, but I promised myself years ago that this was something I wanted to make sure I did to keep myself and my child (or other passengers) safe on the road. You can do this with anything. Promise yourself that you won't check your phone throughout date night. When you're on vacation, set a limit as to how many times you'll check your phone during each day so that you don't miss out on sunsets and all the times your kids say "watch me!".
Remember Your Own Importance - It's so easy to think that we need to be at everyone else's beck and call, especially so if you have a job wherein your role is incredibly reactive, you have demanding family members who are used to you jumping when they say jump, or you're afraid to "miss out" on something so you're always available. The problem with this is that you're in the position of constantly giving yourself away. Your time, your energy, your value, your sanity. You're letting everyone know that their needs are far more important than your own. At work, we all have to prioritize, but your work is for you to prioritize. What that means is that your work is your priority, everyone else's work is NOT your priority. You can manage your work yourself by setting healthy boundaries with colleagues and clients. This also works in your personal life. You determine what your priorities are based upon who you are, what your goals are, and what matters to you. There's no need to schedule 50 things into one weekend when you've agreed to 45 of them only so that you don't hurt someone else's feelings or because "they wanted you to".
Finish What You Start - We all know people who have 20 projects going at a time, and ultimately complete zero of them. This is because they're tackling them all at once, with no focus and no real energy or attention going anywhere. If this sounds like you, stop. Try doing one thing at a time. Do one thing really well, until it's done, and then move on to the next thing. You'll shock yourself at how effectively and how quickly you can finish a task when you're mind isn't scattered in a million directions.
My sweet friends, start taking it easier on yourself. Live your life with more awareness. Pay attention. Notice more. You'll get the same amount of "stuff" accomplished, if not more, but you'll actually be present while it happens. And if your company asks you to multi-task, politely let them know you'll be happy to do that, as soon as you grow a couple of more brains.