How does mindfulness help break the myth of multitasking?

The potential benefits of mindfulness in terms of stress-reduction are well reported, but increasingly the other potential benefits, including improved engagement, enhanced relationships, productivity, focus and concentration are gaining attention, particularly in the corporate world.

I didn’t do a mindfulness course because I wanted to be more productive. I took an 8-week course because I work in a busy job as a city solicitor, that job can sometimes involve pressure and long-hours and I used to worry and churn things over an unnecessary amount in a way which I recognised probably wasn’t very helpful. I have supportive colleagues, and there wasn’t one particular ‘trigger’ moment that led to me doing the course – I just wanted a tool to be able to proactively manage my mental health and well-being; one that would help me worry less and enjoy life more.

I was quite surprised therefore when I found that mindfulness seemed to produce other benefits aside from the stress reduction – the main one I noticed in the workplace was that as I did the course, and more likely as I continued to practice mindfulness afterwards, it stopped me ‘faffing’ as much.  This probably surprised me because I wouldn’t have ever really described myself as a ‘faffer’ in a work context. Worrier, yes; faffer, no.

I now realise I am someone who always tried to multitask…A LOT. I also thought I was generally fairly efficient at it. In busy patches, I could have windows open on both screen, be writing an email, chatting on the phone, tidying my desk and making ‘Yes, I’d love a cup of tea’ signals to a colleague all at the same time.

I was also victim to the outlook pop up window – catching a glimpse of it in the corner of my eye and then needing to interrupt whatever I was doing and open the window (even if it was junk mail) immediately. Even more dangerous when that pop-up was accompanied by an upbeat and enticing pinging noise...

A certain amount of multitasking is necessary, and useful. If we did everything as a single compartmentalised task then we wouldn’t get as much done. Sometimes being able to call up the booking reference for your train ticket on your phone whilst simultaneously walking to the train station is a handy skill to have. And stops you missing the train.

But there are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking that multitasking has saved us time when in actual fact we have carried out several things inefficiently, in a drawn-out manner, without really paying attention. I've found that when I'm distracted from a task and my attention is divided, I don't generally perform as well. 

Additionally, multi-tasking doesn’t always make us happy.

A study by psychologists from Harvard university which tracked participants doing a range of activities found that respondents reported that their minds wandered around 47% of the time, and no less than 30% of the time for every activity they were reporting on with the exception of one activity (which I’ll leave you to guess). The participants in the study reported being less happy when their minds had wandered and were not focussed on the activity in hand, and the tracking showed it was the mind wandering that led to the unhappiness, rather than the other way around.

So when we are multitasking and one of the tasks involves something we were hoping to enjoy, multitasking can sometimes take away the pleasure from that activity.  I know this as I’ve tried to watch several acclaimed Danish crime dramas in the past whilst simultaneously trying to write a catch up email to a friend. The result: a badly written email and I’ve totally lost the trail of subtitles, got annoyed with myself and had to give up on the programme rather than ‘waste my time’ watching it again.

When one of the ‘tasks’ in multitasking involves interacting with another human being, they usually notice that they don’t have your full and undivided attention. We all know what it feels like to be chatting to someone who is simultaneously tapping away on their iphone, or when someone is giving you responses on the end of the phone which indicate they are clearly also simultaneously watching Top-Gear or tidying their cutlery drawer.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present, without judgement. And paying attention to the present can have noticeable benefits well beyond stress reduction.

The change I noticed with my approach to multitasking at work once I started practising mindfulness was gradual – it didn’t happen overnight (and it doesn’t happen all the time) but I find that my ability to start a task, stay with it and finish it – without distraction – has increased. I feel like I get more done and am less easily distracted. And I turned the outlook notification off, which was a fairly joyous moment in my working life.

And in my personal life I have also tried to multitask less. When I phone a friend who I haven’t spoken to in a long time for a catch up, I actually try to sit on the sofa and just have the phone call. I try not to beat myself up as being ‘lazy’ if I’m not trying to do a million things at once in my personal life. And I don’t watch something with subtitles whilst trying to do something else, so the possibilities for foreign TV drama enjoyment are now endless…hurray!