It’s become a truism in productivity literature that we shouldn’t multitask. Constantly switching between projects, we’re told, wastes time, because we need to reorient ourselves whenever we change tasks.
In working with clients on productivity issues, I’ve noticed that, although some people understand intellectually that multitasking is bad, they have trouble kicking the habit. As hard as they try to zero in on a single project, they find their attention constantly jumping around — from writing that e-mail, to coding that computer program, to folding their socks, and so on.
In other words, for these people, multitasking isn’t really a choice — it’s more like something that happens to them. But why?
Notice The Pre-Multitasking Experience
These clients found the answer when I asked them to take a close look at what they were thinking and feeling right before they changed tasks. Each one noticed that, in that “clutch” moment before they switched projects, some sensation came up inside them that they found uncomfortable.
As everyone’s mind and body is unique, this sensation was different for each person. One client, for instance, felt tension in his shoulders right before he was about to switch tasks. For another, it was a mild nausea that came up in her stomach.
Naturally, because they found this experience disturbing, they wanted to get away from it. Thus, to distract themselves from what they were feeling, they turned their attention to a new project.
The trouble was that, a few minutes later, that discomfort reared its ugly head again, and my clients again found themselves changing tasks. This cycle repeated throughout the day, and thus my clients weren’t accomplishing what they wanted in their work.
Until these people deliberately focused on it, this whole process was happening unconsciously — leaving them at the end of the work day feeling frustrated and confused.
Let The Experience Be
Once they were aware of the unwanted experience that was having them multitask, I invited them to try a different way of responding to the experience. Instead of trying to avoid the sensation by jumping between projects, I asked them to try dropping their resistance to the experience and just letting it be.
In other words, I asked them — whenever that experience came up — to simply sit there, keep breathing, relax their bodies, and let that sensation pass away on its own — in the same way we often do during meditation.
When they tried this exercise, they discovered something remarkable. When they just let that tension, nausea, itching, or whatever it was pass away, without running from it, the sensation started to seem more comfortable and familiar. It no longer felt so threatening and dangerous.
More importantly, the more comfortable they got with the experience they’d been avoiding, the less they found themselves multitasking. They became able to move forward in their work, even when that pesky sensation was coming up — and found more efficiency and ease in their work as a result.
The Exercise In A Nutshell
If you find yourself constantly switching between tasks, I invite you to try this exercise. First, get a clear idea of the thought, sensation, or emotion that comes up right before you’re about to change projects.
Then, practice dropping your resistance to that sensation, and letting it fade away on its own. Notice that simply allowing the sensation to be doesn’t hurt or destroy you — it’s actually safe to sit there and let it pass.
As you practice this, I think you’ll find that sensation getting easier to deal with, and your multitasking habit falling away as a result.
Photo by ryantron
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29 thoughts on “Mindfully Moving Beyond Multitasking”
I couldn’t agree more. I’m a coder, and in my line of work, you really have to have a well built up context built up in your mind to get work done right. Building up this context takes time, maybe 20 minutes, before work really starts to get done. I find that “multitasking”, (aka, interruptions) really destroy the mental context that is needed to accomplish work. I’m sure other intellectual or creative jobs also require such a “working context” to be productive.
Hi Kevin — I can definitely get how it would be helpful for preserving that mental context, when some event happens in the world or a thought happens inside, to allow the urge to react to pass away and keep your attention trained on your project.
I know there are times I just need to break away from what I am doing especially when I am feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus on one thing or idea. The frustration often comes from being unable to complete one single task out of many…I think we can overcome this by just accepting that sometimes our best work often comes from focusing on one thing at a time and putting our best into it. And if you can, delegate! By unburdening yourself of some tasks you know someone else is perfectly capable of doing, you are relieving yourself of the pressure to be perfect and do everything all at once.
While it’s great to be Superman (or Superwoman), it would also be great to be stress free and to be yourself!
Karen, The Resume Chick (on Google or Twitter for questions, comments or violent reactions)
Hi Karen — it sounds like you feel overwhelmed when it seems to you like there’s a large number of tasks for you to complete. I’m sure delegating can be useful in that situation, like you say, and also I think it could be helpful to notice what that sensation of overwhelm physically feels like. I know some people experience it as a heaviness in their stomach. What I’ve found is that, when people breathe into that heavy place, like I talk about in this article, the sensation can start to move and dissipate, or at least feel more comfortable to be with, and making progress becomes easier.
Hey, awesome peeps!
I always love Chris’ reminder of the body connection being all.
This post will get me me through my day easier as I have 5 things to accomplish — update my header, prepare a post, practice guitar for an hour, spend an hour on a lyrics chart and, well, I think that’s it. Only 4. Oh blog reading too, so there are 5. But blog reading can come later today, as a reward for all my mindful work.
If my mind wanders to the next little job, I will just monitor what I’m feellng in my body, let it pass. Breathe. And smile.
And here I go…
P.S. Chris Edgar so totally rocks.
xo to all.
Hi Jannie — I think that’s a nice way to sum it up — that when your mind is wandering forward into the next project, probably there’s some sensation that you don’t want to be with right now, and then you get the opportunity to see if you can welcome that sensation.
Love it, Chris! I know for me that the desire to multitask is often just anxiety (I’ve gotta do it all!) or a desire to finish something (everything!) now. Your practice is a perfect way to interrupt that moment when our minds leap out of the present and into reactivity.
Hi Melinda — I think that’s a great way to put it — that it’s nice for people to give us a strategy of “don’t multitask,” but that rule isn’t going to do us much good if we can’t be with the anxiety that’s having us jump from task to task.
And here I thought it was just my old age….
I really enjoyed this because I did what you suggested and realized that what I feel is a tightness in my jaw. I hadn’t really noticed that when I feel this, I do get up and do something else. Today, I just breathed and it did lessen.
I kind of agree with Melinda, my jaw gets tight when I start thinking about ALL I need to get done. If I take a deep breath and wait, I can concentrate again on the task in front of me.
Great post and thanks:~)
Hi Sara — It sounds like you’ve recognized that, when you put off doing a project, what you’re really escaping from is that tightness in your jaw, and that you can actually be with that tension and allow it to ease rather than running away. I think realizations like that are where the gold is at.
I get a tightness in my stomach and then a rather mild headache – it just demands my attention right now. Today it came up while I was driving to catch an errand before the office closed. It was not the pressure of the trip but that I did not make it on time, office closed and I had wasted a trip with a far too giant to do list confronting me…
I pulled into a store parking lot…..turned off the car…just took a couple of deep breaths. I thanked myself for going on my walk and not worrying about the list first thing. Then I took out my little paper tablet and pen and wrote the list down…getting it out of my head. Another deep breath….I prioritized the list and only accepted 3 items as “have tos” Another deep breath….my body told me I was hungry too….the stomach was relieved to know I had gotten the message. I drove home and stayed on task for 2 of the items – so feel fine now and oh yes, I decided not to answer the phone today – I think that was mindful of my energies.
I think I was using about 3 or 4 of your techniques from you book. I find I can not focus on the weekends when family are home….I just make meal times the center – but multi-tasking gets to be the norm the more folks that are around on the weekend – maybe it’s geometric?
Hi Patricia — it sounds like you tend to jump from task to task when people are over at your house. I wonder if you’re okay with telling people that you aren’t going to do something right now, or maybe that you aren’t going to do it at all — I imagine that’s harder to do in person than when they’re far away. Sometimes I notice that people who find themselves “multitasking” a lot have difficulty setting boundaries and so they agree to every request and end up overwhelmed. I wonder if any of that resonates with you.
I think I also learned this style with a hyper active special needs kiddo….have her repeat “cookie, cookie, cookie” for 7 hours straight with a cookie in her hand – then having her busy kicking a hole through her bedroom wall after watching the Helen Keller Story ( Helen kicks a hole in the wall the day Annie arrives to help her) and no knowing which of her imitation behaviors would kick in…I think multi tasking became a way of life and survival….now I am having trouble getting back to being just me and organizing my day…
Maybe we need a productivity book for those folks who are doing child care and senior care? So they will not all burn out like me….
Well, my body is calling the shots today…my eyes are swollen shut, tearing and I am taking myself back to bed….hot tea and chicken soup is in order
Thanks for this Chris, I’m definitely going to try this tonight.
I used to be able to focus without any problem at all, and I’ve found that the more I use the net, the less focussed I am. I’m fine at work, but when at home doing research for my own personal projects I’m opening so many tabs and switching between pages and I can’t seem to just sit and read one at a time. I feel the urge to constantly switch between tabs and read everything at once, which usually means I don’t read anything with enough focus.
I can also relate to the physical discomfort so will try this meditation tonight.
Hi Mirella — that sounds like valuable awareness — that when you’re at work, everything seems fine, but when you’re at home, you find your attention bouncing around between projects. It sounds like you’re looking at this, but I wonder — what happens right before your attention is about to shift? Another way to put it would be: what does the urge to switch between tasks feel like for you? What I imagine you’ll notice, if you look at this, will be a yucky sensation — like Sara and I were talking about with the tension in her jaw — that comes up right before you’re about to switch — and when we notice that, in my experience, we become able to allow it to pass away rather than clicking another tab or opening another website to avoid it.
Hey Chris – Wonderful advice. I’m going to try it too. I certainly don’t like multitasking, and yet, I find myself doing it as a distraction. I especially get distracted by technology, which of course can be addictive. There’s a great book – The Gift of Our Compulsions – and the author talks about compulsive behaviors as a way into a deeper understanding of ourselves. She suggests just sitting with the feeling, as you do, and then bringing compassion to it and looking underneath it. The final step is to ask ourselves what we truly need. So reading your post made me think more about whether there’s a possible link between multitasking and compulsive behavior. I don’t know, just a thought.
Hi Patty — I think “I find myself doing multitasking as a distraction” is a great way to put it — and then I think the other half of the equation is “what are you distracting yourself from?” I think the same question can be asked when it comes to behaviors we call “compulsive” or “addictive” — my sense is that we call those behaviors compulsive because we don’t think we can be with the sensations that come up when we don’t do them, or when we’re feeling the urge to do them. Like you say, I think multitasking is similar, in that people tend to multitask because they don’t think they can sit with the sensations that come up when they try to hold their focus on a single project for a long period of time.
Multi tasking is what many people are doing at workplace and that’s the reason why most of them at the end of the day feel frustrated and unsatisfied with whatever they had done that day. I agree with you, when the feeling of switching tasks comes , relaxing by breathing deeply and letting the feeling pass really works wonders .
Hi Kim — I’m glad to hear it’s been helpful to you to keep breathing and allow that urge to switch tasks to pass away, as opposed to giving into it. There’s so much gold to be had, I think, when we’re willing to be with that sensation and discover what’s on the other side of it.
Awesome to see you here and read this piece from you.
I was never a fan of multitasking, and yet having said that, it is amazing what sometimes “happens” to me while I am on the computer….. writing an email, sending a twee, while editing an article… LOL
The good news is that I don’t feel any unpleasant symptoms, and although my efficiency may not be the greatest, it is a choice in the end that I am making to move around between tasks.
Generally in my life though, I stick to one thing and like to get it done before I move onto another.
Thank you for the wonderful tips and it is great to see the power of meditation yet again.
Hi Evita — isn’t that interesting, how multitasking seems to “happen” when we aren’t consciously observing it. And, like you say, sometimes we may consciously prefer and choose to multitask. The work I’m talking about here has to do with dropping our unconscious multitasking habit, and getting more choice around how we spend our time at work, which I get the sense that a lot of people are wanting.
Hi Chris. I’ve not aware of any feeling that occurs prior to switching tasks, but I love the solution you’ve recommended. I’ll try to notice if there is a feeling that I get, which leads to multitasking; but I think mine is more related to “monkey brain.” Either way, your idea of relaxing into the feeling seems like a great starting point.
Hi Nea — I’m interested to hear what you discover in your exploration — in my experience, a lot of people think at the outset that it’s just an issue of thoughts constantly popping up in the mind, but if they watch closely enough they notice that the compulsive thinking is a means of distracting themselves from unpleasant sensations in the body.
Hi Chris .. thanks I really like this post – the last few years I’ve been multi-tasking for three – two elderly and me .. now it’s down to two & easier .. and this one here (me!) is sorting her life out & that makes a difference.
By reading you and others I’ve learnt it’s good to get one thing done and then move on, doing the essentials first – JD’s rule of three .. the rocks – the important parts first & ensure those are done each day .. other to dos will slot into place.
Getting clarity in one’s life helps too .. and decluttering – so there’s nothing to worry you as you go along your path .. yes hurdles will appear -but it won’t be an obstacle course with lots of hills as well – a straighter route.
Your idea of sitting quietly and letting the negativity drift away – until you feel calm and ready to do another task .. is a great help. Thanks – Hilary
Hi Hilary — yes, I think allowing the sensation to drift away is a good way to describe the practice I’m talking about. I’d also add getting familiar with the sensation you’re experiencing as you’re trying to get through your project, and noticing its qualities — its size, shape, temperature, and so on. When we do that, in my experience, the sensation that’s coming up ceases to seem so alien and scary, and becomes more manageable.
Thanks Chris, and everyone for this great discussion. I really appreciate wisdom of being present with the body that’s being presented here. Fortunately I don’t find myself multitasking very much, but as I read your article, I realized that one of my habits is to get into a kind of “mental multitasking”.
I get lost in a very speedy mind, which comes from the same avoidance of feeling my body and just relating with the present moment. This has become more clear to me in the past couple of years, and I’ve been working with the body more lately as a way to come back into the here and now.
Hi Craig — that sounds like valuable knowledge — to see that, in moments when your mind is really busy, it can be because you’re escaping from the sensations that are coming up in your body. I’ve certainly noticed this in myself. I definitely find bringing my attention to what’s coming up in my body is a great way to refocus on this moment, and thus on the task that’s right in front of me.