In our current work environment, technological developments have greatly facilitated
“multitasking.” Computers allow running several programs at the same time, and mobile
phones have become portable computers able to provide regularly updated information.
Research has shown an increase in media-related multitasking during the past 10
years and has addressed its effects on both mental
health and cognitive processes. Increased media multitasking is associated with higher
depression and social anxiety symptoms, lower
academic performance of college students, and decreased ability
to effectively filter irrelevant information. However, while
computers may indeed be able to “multitask,” humans cannot. In terms of processes,
multitasking involves cognitive shifts of context. One cannot write a report and answer an
incoming e-mail at the same time; instead, the incoming e-mail interrupts the writing task
and requires reorientation. Increased interruption due to multitasking increases stress and
effort to focus attention on the specific task.
Mindfulness is sometimes referred to as “single-tasking,” which is the antithesis of
multitasking. Many mindfulness practices require the participant to use a single focus;
thereby, they promote single-focused attention. This aim is demonstrated by the daily
routine exercise in which one is instructed to focus on only one specific task at hand. Thus,
instead of talking to a client and at the same time checking one’s phone for new messages,
mindfulness cultivates attention to the conversation with the client only. In this example,
the conversation with the client is the main and only object of attention and is, therefore,
like the breath or body in formal practices.
A study by Levy and colleagues examined the relationship between mindfulness and
multitasking. They found that participants who received an 8-week mindfulness training
switched less frequently between competing tasks, experienced fewer negative emotions,
and spent more time on each task (without increasing total time investment) compared
to those in the relaxation or control groups. The meditation and relaxation group also
exhibited improved memory for the details of the work they performed. In sum, these
findings support the idea that mindfulness practice enhances skills that can counteract the
negative consequences of multitasking
The goal of this tool is to demonstrate the illusion of multitasking to clients and offer
concrete guidelines for them to adopt a more mindful (single-tasking) approach to life.
Step 1: Guide client through the exercise using the following script
■ In this exercise, we are going to see how good you are at multitasking.
■ When I say go, I’d like you to say the alphabet to yourself (in your head) as quickly as you can. When you
are finished, raise your hand. Go! [15 secs]
■ Now, when I say go, I’d like you to count from 1 to 26 silently to yourself as quickly as you can. When
you are finished, raise your hand. Go! [15 secs]
■ Now, when I say go, I’d like you to combine these two tasks by saying the letter A and then the number
1, and then B and 2, C – 3, and so on up to number 26. Do this as quickly as you can and raise your hand
when you’re finished. Go! [15 secs
Step 2: Reflection
Discuss the following:
■ What did you notice?
■ How was it for you to combine the two tasks?
■ When do you tend to multitask in your life?
■ Are there times/situations/people in your life that would benefit from engaging in single-tasking as
opposed to multitasking?
Step 3: Practical tips for single-tasking
Share some practical tips for increasing single-tasking in daily life:
- Only have one browser tab open at once (or set of tabs, if they’re related to one task).
- Focus on what you want to get done—if you’re not sure, it’s easier to get distracted.
- If you start reading an article, read it to completion or save it for later in an app, like Instapaper, don’t
leave it open all day in your browser.
- Use one app at a time on your phone, rather than switching quickly between several.
- When you’re interrupted, or you switch tasks, notice what you’re doing so you’re aware of your behavior.
- Have more digital-free time. This last rule is an important one. If e-mail, social media, and internal chat
are your main distractions, spending more time away from your phone or computer can help your brain
get used to more extended periods without those distractions. Finally, single-tasking can be practiced
while having dinner or spending time with your family just as much as on work tasks. Leaving your
computer turned off, and your phone in another room can help you enforce single-tasking more easily
by making those common distractions unavailable