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Lions Roar : May 2014
W e would liKe to Believe that attention is infinite, but it isn’t. That is why multitasking is a misnomer. The brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both. This does not mean that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, of course. What we cannot do is concentrate in the same moment on two distinct, input-rich activities that require our attention. While we may be able to talk on the phone and stir coffee simultaneously, we can’t carry on a conversa- tion and text at the same time without losing information and time. Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to switch their attention back and forth, they take—on average— 50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 per- cent more errors. That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a complex process to disengage the neu- rons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time you waste and the lower your quality of work. Strung out by information overload, however, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction. “Successful” multitasking has been shown to activate the reward circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels—the brain chemical respon- sible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopa- mine rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes. This is comparable to the rush you might feel while play- ing the slot machines in a casino. Stimulated and entertained by the flashing lights, the ringing bells, and the distracting, carnival- like atmosphere, gamblers go into a pleasure trance, addicted to the illusion of winning money when, in fact, they’re going broke. It’s important to be aware of how multitasking can stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while steal- ing our focus and harming performance. “When you are walk- ing, walk. When you are sitting, sit,” is ancient wisdom. Hopping rapidly from one thing to the next, answering the phone while we’re shuffling papers while we’re sipping a latte, we fritter away our attention and forget more easily. In addition to dopamine, multitasking prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems. This also means that the information We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more efficient, but it only makes us unhappy. SHARon SALzBERg shares some tips for getting work done well without getting worked up. Reprinted from Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing illUstration by andré slob the myth of multitasking SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2014 60