Developing your ability to resist distraction is the key to breaking this addictive pattern.
If you find your brain dancing from one thought to the next, or switching tasks when you’re trying to get multiple projects finished, you may be lighting up those pleasure centers in your brain in a way that leaves your wheels spinning.
When you have many tasks in front of you, it can be tempting to want to get a little done on each, where you feel some progress has been made. Some people pride themselves in being good multitaskers, but what research shows it that multitasking actually gets in the way of getting things done.
There is however, more short term pleasure to be had in multitasking. Laurie J. Cameron, a mindfulness teacher and leadership trainer, explains why multitasking doesn’t work—but feels so good—in her book The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to find Focus, Calm, and Joy from Morning to Evening. The danger with multitasking appears to be in the way it uses up mental energy. Cameron writes, “The rapid, continual shifts typical of multitasking can cause your brain to burn through fuel so quickly that you deplete its nutrients and feel exhausted, even after a short time.” Using up the body’s limited resources in this way can “compromise your cognitive, emotional, and physical performance.”
The biggest danger of multitasking, according to Cameron, is that it gets in way of flow. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in his 1990 book, flow occurs when an activity where you are challenged to the edge of your ability completely absorbs your attention. Cameron describes flow as “being consciously engaged with whatever you are doing.” It’s not difficult to imagine how multitasking, constantly breaking that conscious connection with the task at hand can impede flow.
We can think of being in flow as a long term reward. It takes persistence to stick with a task, especially when you are called on to harness your deeper capacities. Multitasking, on the other hand, offers an immediate ‘hit’ of pleasure to the brain, developing a habit reward system that can be alluring. Cameron writes, “switching between quick tasks and getting more hits seem irresistible. Neuroscientists call this the dopamine-addiction feedback loop- when your brain rewards you for losing focus and looking for a new task. I call it brain candy.”
Developing your ability to resist distraction is the key to breaking this addictive pattern according to Cameron. She offers these practices to lead you in the right direction:
- Be Intentional. Choose one project, and commit yourself to getting to a certain point before you move to something else.
- Work in focused intervals. Your brain can only focus for a set amount of time. Cameron recommends working in 60-90 minutes blocks, taking a break, and then returning for another focused block.
- Notice yourself multitasking. Bringing awareness to a habit is the first step in changing it. Cameron writes, “Choose the priority task, stop any others, and work sequentially, one thing at a time.” When you notice you want to skip over to another task, take a breath and continue on the one you already are working on.
- Be intentional about taking breaks. On your breaks between focused intervals, do something that will give you a reset. Cameron suggests getting into nature, daydreaming, drawing, or having a healthy snack. The key is to choose a creative outlet, (preferably non-screen related) so that your pre-frontal cortex- where all that focus comes from- gets a break.
- “Just three breaths.” Cameron describes this as one of her favorite ‘mini-practices’. When you notice you are multi-tasking, take three slow breaths. With the first breath, calm the mind while saying “calm”. The Second breath is meant to calm the body, practice by saying “relax”. For the third breath, bring your awareness to your heart and, as Cameron writes, ask yourself ‘what is most important now?’.”
Giving up the short term thrill of brain candy lets you benefit from the more satisfying experience of finishing your projects and enjoying both focus and flow.