Which Is Better: Mindfulness or Multitasking?

Are you a pro at working out while listening to the latest podcast? Perhaps you can even hold a conversation while planning out the rest of your day?

Like myself — you are probably a multitasker.

There is some pride involved when conquering several tasks at once, like driving while eating Chipotle and calling into a meeting — all without spilling that overpriced guac on your chinos.

In fact, many employers find this trait highly desirable — even though I would never put my burrito-eating skills on my resume.

But in reality, multitasking is often detrimental, reducing productivity by nearly 40%. Your brain is not focused on the current moment, and you are more likely to make mistakes. 

It’s quickly shifting your attention from one task to another. Thus, it is easier for your brain to become distracted and exhausted. 

You are basically half-assing multiple tasks instead of whole-assing just one.

Still, some people swear up and down that they are born to be multitaskers. While I would love to give these so-called experts the benefit of the doubt, the evidence against multitasking — and in favor of mindfulness — is overwhelming.

The Science & Downsides To Multitasking

Person Texting And Driving

Yes, you may think you’re an expert multitasker, but you are only an expert in your reality. 

Not to break out a clearly morbid example, but the nearly 3,000 people killed by distracted driving annually probably thought they were great multitaskers as well.

Suppose that argument alone doesn't stir you up a bit. In that case, I think you should look at some scientific study results about multitasking pitfalls.

Switching Costs & Mental Refractory Period

Psychologists have found that there is a mental cost between switching tasks.

In the 90s, Ph.D. researchers crafted a study where participants performed task-switching experiments. They compared how long it took subjects to complete a task based on their previous tasks' complexity and variety. 

They discovered that people who switched to a completely different task - however predictable - were slower to adjust to the new task than subjects who repeated the same task again.

It’s like a refractory period after lovemaking — but for your big brain, not your little brain.

Task Complexity Index

In a 2001 experiment, researchers conducted a series of math-based task-switching experiments on college students and young adults. 

They found that each new task was met with lost time (as we previously mentioned, the mental refractory period), independent of intelligence level.

Also, they discovered that the amount of time lost between tasks correlated with the complexity of the task itself. 

Therefore, the higher the task complexity index, the longer the necessary mental refractory period. It’s like if you are in the gym lifting heavyweights: the weight your brain benches, the longer rest you need in between sets.

Further research has quantified this refractory period to be the brain recouping, figuring out where it was in the previous task, and reconfiguring its control settings within the new task.

Gray Matter & Mental Health

Multitasking isn’t just about inefficiency and lost productivity; it can even go as far as affecting your mental health

Research has linked people how media multitask (using multiple screens or devices) with lower gray matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) within the brain. The ACC is responsible for both cognitive and emotional control.

Therefore, we can assume that the more you multitask, the less you fully process your experience within reality.

Other studies have shown that gray matter brain density is adversely correlated with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. While it may be a stretch to link multitasking with the prevalence of mental illness, there sure seems to be a correlation.

You’re Just A Meat Computer

Man sitting on bed

Think of your brain like a computer. 

There are always a few programs running your bodily functions in the background so that you don’t drop dead. These mental processes typically don’t play a role in your day-to-day activities or decisions unless you’re otherwise unhealthy. Still, they take up a decent chunk of your mental computing power.

The remaining capacity of your meat computer should be focused on what you are doing. It’s taking input via your senses and outputting your emotions, thoughts, and actions. 

Like with any computer, the more programs you have running, the slower and less efficient you become.

Obviously, this whole analogy is super-simplified, and there is much more to it.

Still, the sentiment holds: the key to maximize your meat computer’s efficiency — without suffering on quality —is to focus on a singular task in the present.

This is where mindfulness comes into play.

Mindfulness Vs. Multitasking

Man meditating

Mindfulness is the state of being completely aware of your surroundings. 

It’s about knowing what you’re doing when you’re doing it —  and why you are doing it in the first place. 

That’s not to say you can’t do multiple things while being mindful; you should just expend your energy in the present rather than in the future or past. 

Obviously, some people find this concept too vague and unhelpful, so let’s look at a better example.

Let’s say you are brushing your teeth. For many of us, this simple task is just part of our daily routine and often overlooked. You pick up the toothbrush, squeeze out some toothpaste, quickly spritz the loaded brush with some water, and feverishly brush your chompers. 

Yet if you are brushing your teeth while being mindful, you are entirely focused on dislodging food scraps and polishing your pearly whites. 

You understand your why for brushing your teeth, and adjust your actions to fit that purpose. Basically, you aren’t brushing your teeth just for the heck of it; you are doing it to improve dental hygiene and maintain an acceptable social appearance.

Still, most of the time, your brain is not thinking about reaching back to your molars or scraping your tongue (if you aren’t doing this, you should start).

Instead, your head is wrapped up about what you will wear for the day, why your boss doesn’t seem to like you, and how Rose had plenty of room on that door for Jack at the end of Titanic.

In other words, you are multitasking — albeit poorly — between preparing for your day, hypothetical movie plot holes, and keeping your mouth clean.

Your brain ruminates, spiraling into the abyss, moving from one thought to another — then another after that. 

You aren’t living in the present moment.

That leads us to the truth about multitasking. If your brain is thinking about something while your body is doing something else, you aren’t fully productive.

Even if it’s a single task, then you are multitasking. You aren’t putting 100% of your meat computer’s processing power into reality, thus not performing to the best of your ability.

Still, multitasking is not as bad as it is made out to be. In fact, it’s often necessary to multitask to survive in today’s society.

Four Mindfulness Tips For Multitaskers

So, as I mentioned, it’s not like you can give up multitasking in reality. In fact, our society was basically built around multitasking. 

Instead of completely alienating yourself from reality, it may be best to follow a few simple tips to improve productivity and reverse the adverse effects of multitasking.

1. Vocalize Your Task

One trick in the mindfulness world is not only to understand your intentions but to rewire your brain to focus on a single task at a time. 

By vocalizing what you are doing, you are basically commanding your brain to do that thing. This method works best during those minuscule refractory periods when you are switching tasks. Let’s take a look at a quick example.

Let’s say you’re answering an email; you should be able to say, “I’m answering an email literally.” Then, you see a notification pop-up for Facebook. You would then say, “I’m checking my Facebook notifications.” 

At first, you should be saying these things out loud, but once you get a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to vocalize your task in your head to steer your brain in the right direction.

2. Understand Your Schedule

Productivity and procrastination are directly linked to emotional processing ability. In turn, this mental ability is related to alertness and wakefulness.

Therefore, to exert your most entire effort and focus on either mindfulness or multitasking, you need to recognize which time of day you’re at your best. Perhaps you’re an early bird, or maybe you like to burn the midnight oil. 

It’s also important to note that the optimal time of day is not the same for each specific task. You don’t have to lump all of your essential errands into a three-hour window.

Personally, I really like to write in the mornings because it makes me feel most creative. Still, my optimal gym time is in the afternoon. 

It’s all about understanding your motivations and energy levels to improve your efficiency.

3. Do (Or Don’t) Eliminate Distractions

The traditional assumption is that if you eliminate distractions, you are more likely to be productive. While this is often the case, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Albeit limited, research has shown that distractions may actually control urgers and increase self-control. They act as a quick reward system for the brain, especially when a task’s cognitive demands weigh heavy on your processing power.

Yet, the issue with distractions is not the distraction themselves but the guilt we feel after succumbing to the distraction. 

We blame ourselves for falling down the wikihole and watching hours of time-wasting Youtube videos instead of putting our nose to the grindstone. 

The accumulation of time-wasters breeds negative self-talk, putting our already overheated meat computer into overdrive.

The key is to gamify our distractions as a reward system, refocusing our cognition on productivity’s emotional element.

4. Use A Modified Pomodoro Technique

I’m going to be honest: my time management skills used to be utterly horrendous. 

One minute I was ready to conquer my daily tasks. The next moment, I was implanting my opinion into the digital Zeitgeist that is Reddit. And the fact that I have ADHD didn’t help at all.

That’s when I learned about the Pomodoro Technique.

I won’t get into the origins of the Pomodoro Technique too much. Still, the just of it is that you work on one task exclusively for 25-minutes, then take a short break before moving onto another task (or it could be the same task again).

 The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Determine which task to perform.
  2. Set a 25-minute timer.
  3. Work on said task.
  4. End that task after 25-minutes and record a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. Take a 5-minute break if you have fewer than four checkmarks and go back to the beginning (it doesn’t always have to be the same task every Pomodoro). Or take a 15–30 minute break if you have more than four checkmarks.

Any time you complete a specific task before the timer goes off, you should not move onto a new task. Instead, take some time to reflect on your work, edit your writing, or get into the right headspace for your next 25-minute interval.

Here’s where the modification comes in: 

I add an emotional reflection component at the end of each interval, asking myself: How did I feel during the task? 

This question helps to avoid mental burnout and enhance productivity. I’m able to physically notate my mood to gain a better understanding of the task. 

Also, it helps me to set my daily schedule up for success. For example, if one 25-minute interval made me feel mentally drained, I may plan on the next task to be relatively simple so I don’t go crazy. 

Give it a shot if you have some time, and make sure to check out more great mindfulness, gratitude, and self-improvement information from the Bro Journal

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