The Myth of Multitasking: Learning to Live a Focused Life

Somewhere in the process of naming my kids I seemed to have picked up a new middle name of my own—“Multitasking.” It seems there\’s never enough time in my “to-day” for my “to-do” list. Yet I absolutely amaze my husband with the multitude of things I am able to do at one time. Turns out, this is not always a good thing.

For most Americans, multitasking has become a way of life. We play enough roles to single-handedly stage our own Broadway show. But we\’re simply not wired to do so much simultaneously.

A study by a group of Stanford researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the brain cannot handle the electronic multitasking we throw at it. And who hasn\’t tried to carry on a telephone conversation while attempting to send an email? But we come off as distant or rude and make mistakes in our email; we simply cannot process more than one string of information at a time.

The myth of multitasking is not a new revelation. In 1740, Lord Chesterfield offered the following wisdom to his son in a letter: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

The quality of the outcome when we do two or more things at once is mediocre at best. Multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but actually takes more time in the end. Shifting mental gears costs time, especially when veering to less familiar tasks. A mere second lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver taking a cell phone call or sending a text message.

That\’s not to say that we should never combine tasks; we simply need to do it intelligently. It doesn\’t take complex brain processes to eat lunch while reading the newspaper or brush one\’s teeth while checking the weather report.

A lifestyle of endless multitasking will leave one feeling inadequate, exhausted, and disappointed. This is the path I was on until I realized how adversely it was affecting me—mentally, physically, and spiritually.

I realized that as long as I was going the wrong way I wasn\’t going to win the race no matter how fast I was going. I decided to make a course correction.

Since I have been practicing more monotasking than multitasking, I have made some startling discoveries: I am going through each day at a less frantic pace, I am more at peace, and I am accomplishing more than usual. I am less scattered (and less stressed!) and not as easily distracted.

Perhaps what I am learning will help you as well.

Relaxation is a word many of us are not intimately acquainted with. Even if we find a few minutes to sit back and relax, we feel guilty. In a multitasking society, if we\’re not constantly on the move, we\’re made out to be lazy and unmotivated. Society has done a convincing job in making us believe that we should never just sit without something happening.

Here\’s what I\’m learning about living a focused life:

*Stop between activities. When the term multitasking first became popular, everyone wanted in thinking it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even job descriptions often came (and sometimes still do) with the requirement that one “must be able to multitask.”

Studies show however that forcing the brain to respond to several stimuli at once results in time lost as the brain must determine which task to perform. And it takes even more time to recover from interruptions caused by constantly switching from one task to another.

I have stopped rushing from task to task, from errand to errand. Depending on what I am doing, after each task I take a few minutes to walk outdoors, pray, read Scripture, or just sit quietly and listen to a song. These brief stops, even when I have to keep going, keeps me refreshed, centered, and ultimately more productive in the long run.

*Turn off technology. Technology is great—on and off the job—but it\’s not everything. For all the timesaving technological advances that have been made, we are making ourselves more stressed by using them obsessively.

While I know I can\’t live without it, I also know it doesn\’t have to be a part of my life 24/7. I have begun to schedule two or three blocks of “no technology” time in my day where I do not check emails, return calls, or get on the Internet. These technology-free moments increase my tranquility, allowing me to focus on the matter at hand.

*Learn to say no. There\’s a big difference between efficiency and effectiveness. God doesn\’t expect us to cram as many tasks into one day as possible; He\’s more concerned that we do the right task at the right time. This is the difference between self-reliant multitasking and God-reliant prioritizing.

The simple fact is that if we continue to burn the candle at both ends, we\’ll soon run out of wax. So how do we decide which candle to burn and which belongs on someone else\’s cake? We need discernment. “To everything there is a season,” says Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Just because we can-do doesn\’t mean we must-do. Not everything we think needs done is to be done by us or at this time. Learning to discern when to say no is a must.

*Get proper rest. In Isaiah 43, God invites Israel to love and serve Him; instead they choose to tire themselves with idols, vanities, and complaints. They are so busy with these things that they grow weary. God then says to them, “You have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel” (v. 22).

Multitasking makes us weary in every way—but not for the One who can refresh us. If I\’m going to be weary, I want it to be the right kind of weariness.

Let\’s be honest: some of us don\’t even take enough time to get proper rest at night let alone take a time-out during the day. Too often in an attempt to “get it done” we sacrifice our sleep. Few of us know the clarity of thought and level of energy that comes with being fully rested.

*Pay attention. When we\’re multitasking, we\’re not truly paying attention to any one thing. But we weren\’t created to be scatterbrained; we were created to be focused. When our attention is rationed out among many competing tasks, we may or may not gain productivity, but we surely lose in so many other ways.

Multitasking just doesn\’t work as well as we\’d like to think it does. I can write a full-length article in one hour or it can take an entire day depending on how many other things I\’m trying to juggle at one time. I am learning that I am more productive (and less stressed) when I zone in on one task at a time and leave the juggling for circus performers.

I am striving to focus on the task at hand and not “what\’s next.” As I pay attention to what I am doing as I am doing it, my concentration levels increase. I have learned that I have to deliberately choose what I am going to pay attention to.

*Enjoy the present moment. While multitasking serves us well in the non-essentials of life, it shouldn\’t become the norm. Trying to do too many things at once consistently not only leads to stress but it also prevents us from truly enjoying any of them.

I have stopped trying to multitask excessively and am instead learning to give myself fully to what I am doing. When it comes to the important stuff, I am committing to do one thing at a time and determine beforehand to enjoy it.

It\’s easy to get discouraged when we find ourselves in the battle between “doing” and “being”—you know, when the hamster wheel of life is turning, but you\’re not really making any progress. But “doing” is not the basis of our relationship with God. Scripture encourages us with this: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).

Quietness and simplicity of life is possible. Once we start to avoid the hamster wheel pace of our society, we can begin to find enjoyment in the simplest of things. Enjoying the journey is a matter of searching for gems among the stones. We find those gems as we search out and create opportunities for warmth and joy in the midst of real life. It\’s not excess productivity what brings us real joy, but a right perspective of the ordinary.

About the Author
Tammy Darling has 975 published articles and writes from her home in Three Springs, PA, where she also homeschools her four children. Once a professional multitasker, she now strives to live a focused life.