The multitasking epidemic

Modern society applauds the multitasker. The more plates we can spin simultaneously, the bigger the pat on the back. Did you manage to do the online shop while helping your child with their homework, answering a couple of work emails, emptying the dishwasher and feeding the cat? Our frantic, relentlessly competitive, modern culture holds you in high esteem. Well done you.

Except that multi-tasking isn’t the magic mode that cultural expectations and our incessant inner critic would have us believe, according to research conducted at Standford University by Clifford Ivar Nass.

Nass describes our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. The biggest multitaskers among us will typically switch between at least four different tasks at any one time.

The adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine that course through our body when we keep another ball in the air, tricks our mind into thinking that we have increased our productivity. However, as Nass and his research team demonstrated, multitasking decreases productivity by 60%

While the juggle may seem to work for us at first, it is ultimately unsustainable. Multiple tasks battle for our attention, each one distracting us from another. Not only does this chaos of distraction decrease our productivity, it also decreases our IQ. We find it harder to remember things, and we are more likely to make mistakes.

Inevitably the dance of multitasking leads us away from meaningful connection. We are too irritable, too busy, too distracted. Creativity, and people, are kept at a distance, lest they disturb the plates are spinning with such desperation it can start to feel like the plates are spinning us.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from this epidemic of multitasking?

In their book Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Héctor García and Francesc Miralles propose various strategies for fostering a state of flow – the antithesis to multitasking. Many of their suggestions are useful, even when we have no specific task on which we need to focus, as they serve to bring us back to the present, something a wealth of research has shown to improve our mental health.

  • Don’t look at a screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
  • Turn off your phone when you wish to focus on a specific task.
  • Designate one day a week to turn off all devices.
  • Read and respond to email only once or twice a day.
  • Practice mindfulness or other meditative techniques, or simply get out for a walk as this help you return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted.

Turning down the distractions and quietening the noise of our busy lives and gifting each thing that we do with our undivided attention can help us find our natural flow, our Ikigai. Once we shift our focus away from the past and future, and situate our whole selves in the present moment there is no place for anxiety and so more space for a steady flow of progress towards where we would like to be.

A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.

Albert Einstein


García, H., & Miralles, F. (2017). Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. London: Penguin Random House.

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