Fat, Dumb and Unhappy: How multitasking is killing us

ChocolateQuick poll: What would you rather do, A.) Simultaneously draft an email while talking on the phone as you balance your checkbook and fire a text off to your spouse regarding your (forgotten) dinner plans and updating your Facebook page, or B.) eat an entire box of fine chocolates?

Hint: one of these activities is actually worse for you than the other, and causes sickness, weight gain, forgetfulness, loss of productivity, stress and fatigue. In fact, if you’re going to pack on the pounds and be unhealthy, you may as well go for Option B.

It used to be the multi-tasking was a badge of honor for the ultra-busy and over-committed. It wasn’t long ago that you’d be forgiven—even applauded—for blowing off family (and life) in favor of multiple projects, emails, texts, meetings and the various responsibilities that pull us all in multiple directions.

Those days are fading, however, and the focus has shifted away from attempting to pull off the chaos and instead strive for sanity.

The new mark of professionalism is focus, presence, and a desire for deeper understanding and committed concentration on the task at hand, and the person directly in front of us.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what’s in it for you, and why should you care?

Here are some truths about multitasking (and how to stop doing it):
1. It stresses you out. The brain does not like to get roughed up by a constant deluge of distractions and simultaneous tasks. It freaks out a little and starts dumping cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream in order to compensate. While it may be tempting to try to squeeze more and more into any given moment, you are far better off streamlining your tasks and decluttering your mind. Try this instead: Get in the habit of turning off all notifications on your phone or other devices and close out email, Facebook and other distractions. Place a note (or a giant poster) on your office or workspace, and if you can, escape altogether while you work on your project.

2. It makes you fat. All that adrenaline and cortisol triggers the fat-generating responses in the the body, and instead of getting more done, you get fat. Belly fat, to be exact. You are seriously better off stuffing your face with chocolate than doing multiple tasks at once. But what if packing on the pounds and getting cavities is not on your agenda? Here’s a healthier option: If you find the multitasking is taking it’s toll on your sanity, step back for 5 minutes and breathe deep. Seriously. Unplugging for even a few minutes will recenter you and bring the boiling pint of stress and overstimulation down to a tamed simmer. Get some heart-thumping exercise in, too. It’s the best antidote for a stressful day.

3. It makes you dumb. Seriously dumb. Studies show that smoking marijuana drops your I.Q. by 5 points, while switching from task to task actually impacts your I.Q. by 10 full points. You are actually twice as dumb while multitasking than you are when high on pot! Unless you like the idea of being stoned while doing your most important work, consider this approach: Block certain tasks out into categories (i.e. creative work, sales calls, email and social media, etc.) and allot time for each one, followed by a short break (i.e. 5-10 minutes) to refresh and reset. I previously wrote about the virtues of scheduling 50-90 minute blocks of concentrated work and then breaking to rest your brain. This is a great way to off-load stress form the brain and maintain laser-sharp focus.

4. Things take waaay too longNot only does multitasking diminish your mental performance, it completely screws up your efficiency and takes more time to finish even simple tasks. In fact, by some estimations, it takes up to 15 minutes to regain your focus after even the slightest interruption. And while it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, you do not actually get more done in less time when you multitask. Doubt this? Try this simple test and see for yourself:

On a blank sheet of paper, write two columns, ‘Test 1’ and ‘Test 2’. For Test 1, time yourself as you write all of the letters of the alphabet, A to Z, working from the top of the page to the bottom. Then, immediately write the numbers 1 through 26 next to the corresponding letters and note the time it took to write both lists. For Test 2, write the letter then corresponding number as you progress through the alphabet: A 1, B 2, C 3, D 4… Z 26 and so on and note your time. Unless you are superhuman, your Test 2 time will likely be far longer than Test 1, simply as a result of trying to manage two different lists simultaneously.

5. It can’t actually be done. Hard as it may be to believe, the human brain is biologically incapable of focusing on more than one task at a time. However, with practice, the brain can become quite adept at switching from one task to the other, and most people who pride themselves on being great multitaskers are actually more efficient at switching from one thing to the next and picking right up where they left off from each. No matter how hard we try to juggle multiple things at once, we are combating basic biology, and we will lose every time.

None of this is necessarily easy at first, but like any solid habit, it requires focus and discipline and a little patience to incorporate. To really do your best work in the world, drop the multitasking mayhem and incorporate single-item focus and situational presence. It’s time for us to challenge ourselves to evolve from surface-level thinkers to deep-thought voyagers.

Implement this today, especially if you plan on reaching for another piece of chocolate.

Fly High, Fly Fast, Fly Far.
~JT

4 Responses to Fat, Dumb and Unhappy: How multitasking is killing us

  1. Ann says:

    I love this article. And I’ve done battle with cortisol before. I’ve felt my rump getting big because of it. Super useful, and I’ve forwarded it to many a client.

  2. Hey JT – Great article. May explain why I haven’t lost my “belly” despite exercising 4-5 days a week. 🙂 Thanks!

    -Steve