Multitasking is a misnomer; the brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both. While we might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, problems start to arise when the multiple things we’re engaged in are ‘input-rich’. When each object of our attention consists in itself of a complex array of information, requiring thought and consideration, moving between multiple problems at once starts to exact a cost. ‘Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to switch their attention back and forth, they take – on average – 50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors. That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a complex process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time you waste and the lower your quality of work.’
It makes sense, then, to do just one thing at a time: giving it all our attention until it is finished, and then moving wholly attentively to something else. But when it comes to how we use our attention, the fact that something makes sense doesn’t make it easy. In the digital age, distraction is all around us. As we fragment our attention between tweets and files and plans and problems and news items, the fragmentation only becomes more compelling: ‘Many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction.
From a mental health perspective, the fragmentation of attention can mean that when low mood or anxiety arises, the mind – trained to jump quickly from one thing to another – spins off readily into ever-escalating negative thoughts. When this happens, the ‘errors’, as it were, arise from the fact that thoughts often feel like reality. Whether we feel the consequences of multitasking in our work, or in our mood, there is good news: if our attention is malleable, we can do things to shape it differently.
One way to approach this is to think about what satisfies attention. Typically, the most satisfying way of paying attention is to cycle between focus and breaks. ‘Rather than divide our attention, it is far more effective to take frequent breaks between intervals of sustained, one-pointed attention.’ With this in mind, this week’s suggested practice is short – just under ten minutes – to invite you to slot it into your day as a break and to help you to re-gain focus after lots of internet and news surfing.