You’re driving your car while listening to the radio while checking your voicemail while keeping an eye on the GPS while surreptitiously sending a quick text message while having a sort-of conversation with your child in the back seat.
Somehow you manage to arrive at your destination safely. You manage to get it all done. And at the end of the day you congratulate yourself on being a champion multi-tasker.
Instead of congratulations, you deserve condolences.
You’re not only jeopardizing your own health and safety – and your child’s – but in truth you’re getting less done than if you had concentrated on a single task at a time.
“[W]hat we have just uncovered in the last couple of years … is that although we think we’re multitasking, we’re not,” said psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin on the Diane Rehm Show. “The brain doesn’t actually work that way. What we’re doing is timesharing our attention. We pay attention to one thing for a second or two and then another thing and then another thing and we come back around to the first. We fracture our attention to little itty-bitty bits without really focusing on any one thing.”
Ulcers, Insomnia, Oh My
When multitasking we feel like we’re clicking on all cylinders. We’re putting out fires, juggling like crazy, checking things off our to-do list. We feel like we’re being especially productive.
There’s a reason for that. Deadlines create stress, which causees our brain to pump out adrenaline and other hormones. This provides a burst of energy and sharpens our senses.
And so we feel like we can take on the world, that we can do it all. But really we’re only fooling ourselves.
“[T]he brain is very good at self-delusion,” says Dr. Levitin, who wrote the book This is Your Brain on Drugs. “I’ve experienced this myself. I happen to think that after five or six single malt scotches, I’m uproariously funny, but people tell me that’s not so.”
Plus it is only a quick fix. It’s like a sugar high. Eventually we crash, which can lead to headaches, exhaustion and insomnia. Over time, if this becomes our standard mode of operation, we may experience back pain, stomach troubles, heart disease and depression, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The problem is we’re besieged with too much information from too many directions. Emails, phone calls, posts, tweets, podcasts, webinars, apps, alerts. Studies show that we will absorb five times as much information today than we did in 1986. As Levitin points out, that’s the equivalent of reading 176 newspapers from cover to cover.
Given this information assault, multi-tasking would seem to be a reasonable solution, but actually it adds to the problem.
So what’s an overloaded lawyer to do? Here are some suggestions from Dr. Levitin:
- Know your limits. Two decades ago, it was thought that the brain could process five to nine things at once. Actually we can only competently do two or three things at a time.
- Focus on important tasks. The brain doesn’t distinguish between important decisions – say, which job to accept – and trivial ones – say, which brand of toilet paper to buy. So bear down on the big items and let the small stuff slide.
- Simplify. The growing body of “happiness science” (like this seminal work by Daniel Gilbert) tells us that happy people are those who are happy with what they’ve got. They’re not constantly looking for something newer or better. As a result, their lives are simpler. Warren Buffet, for instance, has lived in the same rather modest house for 40 years.
- Go off the grid. Take a walk, bake brownies, play a ukulele. Or just stare out the window, because guess what? Daydreaming is good for you. “[I]f you feel that your mind is wandering, rather than reaching for another cup of coffee, give in to your brain,” says Levitin. “Let your mind wander and you’ll find that after 10 or 15 minutes of that, you’re completely refreshed. You’ve restored some of the glucose that’s been taken up with decision making, calmed the cortisol release, the stress hormone. And people who take breaks like this, 15 minutes every couple hours – although their bosses think that they're being lazy – at the end of the day, they’ve gotten more work done and their work has been more creative.”
Most importantly: change your mindset. Instead of trying to do six things at once, try uni-tasking. You’ll add years – and quality – to your life. And you’ll end up getting more done.
- Diane Rehm Show http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-09-10/daniel-levitin-the-organized-mind
- Consumer Health Day http://consumer.healthday.com/encyclopedia/emotional-health-17/emotional-disorder-news-228/multitasking-and-stress-646052.html
- Stumbling on Happiness https://www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/gilbert/
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual.