In spite of the fact that people brag about being able to multi-task, the reality is that the human mind can only focus on one thing at a time. When you pay attention to one thing the mind automatically blocks out all other stimuli. Multi-tasking is simply jumping from focal point to focal point; but, you are still only focusing on one thing at a time.
The payoff from trying to multi-task is not worth the toll it takes on the individual making the effort.
David Meyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan states the following:
Doing several tasks simultaneously may seem like the height of efficiency – and it would be, if a person had more than one brain. In the real world, multitasking actually wastes time and reduces work quality.
Many studies have shown that multitasking slows down the mind and makes it less effective. Dividing and distracting the mind causes rapid mental course changes, the inability to effectively focus, and creates stress – which increases with every additional task that is added to the mix.
Imagine a dog who is trying to chase three different balls thrown in different directions. He runs two steps in one direction, three steps in another, and one step in the third. He ends up running in circles.
The mind is the same.
- The more time you spend changing mental direction the less time you have to actually focus on a single task.
- The more directions or mental tasks you add, the less effective you become.
But . . . that is not the whole story. Another facet of multi-tasking is worrying about events, projects, or situations that have nothing to do with where your focus should be at the moment. Worrying about what has happened, or may happen changes nothing. All it does is drain your mental and emotional resources, making you less effective at the task at hand.
Let your subconscious handle it. The subconscious mind is one of the most powerful tools that we possess. It is unnecessary to make an effort to keep everything at the “top-of-mind” because everything that happens is stored in your sub-conscious.
If someone asks what you did last Monday evening, you do not have to consciously go back and examine every minute of that day to find the answer. The subconscious mind takes over; it instantly searching the brain’s archives, retrieves the memory and quickly delivers it to the conscious mind.
It works the same way with any task that involves memorized actions and facts. Like conscious thoughts, these subconscious processes also utilize brain energy and processing capacity that can go on overload if pushed too far, which can take a toll on your emotions.
The Human Computer
If you compare the brain to parts of a computer, the conscious mind is somewhat like the user interface, the part that becomes visible on screen that can be directed by the click of a mouse to execute a command.
The subconscious on the other hand is like the processor. While invisible, it actually does most of the work, executing on every command within milliseconds after the user initiates it.
Also, like a computer, if you ask it to execute too many commands simultaneously, or give a command that is far too large and complex, it will freeze and lock up.
Let’s look at an example:
You are under pressure to finish an urgent project at work. But, before you left for work this morning you had a fight with your spouse. You have consciously put the fight out of your mind, but your subconscious mind has not stopped running through the words spoken in anger and the emotions that flared.
After a hour or two at work, you realize you are not giving your full attention to the project; plus, you are extremely irritable, which is not typically your nature.
Even though you are not actively thinking about the fight itself, while you are trying to keep you conscious mind focused on the work, your subconscious continues to ruminate on the fight and react emotionally to it.
The emotional response of your brain is creating a physiological and psychological effect that is absorbing all your processing capacity and coloring every other thought you have, even those that have nothing to do with the fight at all.
Essentially, the mind has locked up! The past is controlling the present, making it almost impossible to function effectively and take care of what needs to be done at this moment.
Developing the ability to let go of the past, and stay in the present moment is critical to a high level of productivity and effectiveness.
Then . . . there is the challenge of the future. Some object to the philosophy of “living in the moment” by saying that the present is not the only important time frame – that the future is equally important. I agree the future is important, but there is a caveat that must be added.
Plan, but Do Not Dwell on the Future
We need to plan for the future, short-term and long-term. Setting goals and having a clear picture of where you want to go during the next few months and years will help pull you into the life that you want to create.
But . . . thinking about the future should not be something that consumes a large percentage of your mental time.
Like the past (which is gone and cannot be changed), the future, which has not yet arrived, also cannot be changed by your thoughts. It can only be changed as you live in each present moment – thereby creating the future.
Dwelling on the future is dangerous for another reason – it allows you to stack-up multiple possible scenarios that become stressors. Worry overloads the mind, causing an emotional crash (going back to the computer analogy) followed by mental paralysis.
There is no need to put yourself through that kind of mental anguish when your imagined scenarios may never happen. It is a total waste of time and energy to stress about all the things that may or may not happen. Live in the moment and deal with what actually happens – when it happens!
The brain tends to look at the size of the task involved – rather than stretch it out over time. That is why it is important to break down tasks and challenges into bite-sized pieces, so the mind does not stress out and go into resistance mode. It is also an excellent way to overcome procrastination tendencies.
Now that we have covered the negative aspects of focusing on too many things at once, let’s look at something that can be powerful and useful.
Get in the Zone
There is definitely something therapeutic about focusing on one all-consuming task. The majority of us probably have at least one experience of focusing completely on a specific task and found that it pulled us into “the zone,” blocking everything else from our awareness.
This “zone” is a maximal state of attention, which can also include a maximal state of enjoyment, or a maximal state of pain, depending on the nature of the activity. The more you focus on a stimuli, the more you feel it.
The opposite is also true, the less you focus on it, the less you can feel or perceive it.
The body uses this principle to help reduce pain. When a person suffers from a cut, burn, or other painful injury, the pain can be diminished by massaging the area around the wound. The sensory nerves that react to the massage send pulses to the spinal cord.
At the same time it is also sending inhibitory pulses to the nerves nearby, which lessens the pain coming from nerves in the damaged area of the body. Scientists have even developed devices that can stimulate the nerves so much that they can negate a large portion of pain from severe injuries.
The psychological effect in the brain works the same way. We can effectually block out stressful thoughts by occupying our mental channels with ONLY what is going on in the moment. This is known as “diversion.” In Spanish divertido means fun, entertaining, or funny.
Diversion is the core of using the present moment to find peace of mind and create high levels of productivity.
Live in the Moment
When life is full of chaotic elements that threaten to overwhelm, it is simple to forget them all by focusing solely on what you are doing in the present (the here and now).
Although pleasurable activities are great for this purpose, they do not have to be pleasurable for this to work.
Scrubbing the bath tub can work just as well as binge-watching your favorite TV series. In fact, scrubbing the tub may be even more effective since it requires the involvement of all five of your senses, instead of just sight and sound.
This is why many people find activities such as gardening, jogging, sports, listening to music, painting, and crafts to be very therapeutic. They are great stress relievers. Even workplace activities, when not tied to urgent deadlines, can be relaxing.
This principle of living in the moment is also fundamental to meditation, which is meant to absorb your mind completely – to bring you fully present by focusing on one thing – like your breath going in and out.
Find diversions that work for you – that bring you into the moment – the give you peace of mind and improved performance in anything you endeavor.