Stop “multitasking” and get more done

Meditation is nothing new. Experts believe it’s been around since humankind first rubbed two sticks together to build a fire. Indeed, some anthropologists speculate that man’s ability to meditate may have contributed directly to his evolution into “higher” thinking.

And in 2012, we saw a lot of new research emerge on the power of mindfulness meditation to improve brain productivity. One of the most interesting studies published last year has to do with meditation and multitasking…

One of the banes of contemporary life, for many, is the expectation or requirement to engage in so-called “multitasking.” In fact, perhaps you resolved to become a better multitasker in the New Year. But if that’s your New Year’s resolution, make another.

The fact is, there is no such thing as true multitasking. Attention span is not infinite. The mind does not focus (or concentrate) on more than one thing at a time. Just as the eye can’t focus on multiple visual fields at the same time.

Let me explain…

In the eye, your retina can record information and transmit it to the visual cortex of your brain within milliseconds. However, we rely on extra-ocular muscles (outside the eye) to shift both eyes into single focus on an object. This is called convergence.

Because of convergence, it takes longer to truly  process information from a new visual field (about 200 milliseconds or one-fifth of a second). The only way to become quicker at this  is to deprive sight in one eye.

The same thing is true in your brain…

The “muscles” in your brain must also shift from one object to another. Your mind cannot actually focus on several ideas at the same time, but must switch rapidly between and among them. When you multitask — perhaps you think you are being “super-productive” — your mind actually shortchanges both the amount and the quality of the attention given to any one topic. To improve your brain’s productivity, it’s important to quit multitasking and try convergence instead. In other words, focus on one thing at a time.

And meditation can help.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Washington looked at the benefits of meditation or mindfulness training on productivity in the workplace. The researchers recruited human resource (or personnel) specialists for the study.

Typically, perhaps as “prototypes” for the personnel they are seeking, these specialists try to “multitask” on the job. They simultaneously schedule, plan, and develop creative approaches to personnel problems. Throughout the day they also get bombarded with emails, phone calls, instant messages, and other interruptions, including in-person intrusions. 

To test the usefulness of meditation in the workplace, researchers divided the personnel specialists into three groups. The first group received eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training. The second group received an eight-week course in relaxation therapy. The third group received no training for the first eight weeks. Over the second set of eight weeks, the third group received the same mindfulness meditation training as the first group.

But where is the “control” group, you ask?  Essentially, the third group acted as its own control. This is what we call a “cross-over” control where the same people get tested “before and after.”

The researchers measured how quickly the specialists completed tasks. They also monitored how many times the participants switched tasks during the day. Lastly, the personnel specialists were asked to report on their stress levels.

After the first eight weeks, the meditation group could concentrate for longer periods of time without getting distracted. They stayed focused longer, carefully completing one task at a time. They also reported lower stress.

After the first eight weeks, the other two groups didn’t fare as well. They tended to switch more often between tasks and concentrate for shorter periods of time. All this multitasking didn’t make them work faster, however.

They still took the same amount of time to get their work done as the mindfully-focused group. Plus, their stress levels did not go down like the meditation group’s did.

However, after the third group received their meditation training, their stress levels did improve. Plus, their ability to stay focused on one task at a time improved.

According to one of the researchers, “Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle.” Overall, mindfulness meditation improves your attention by improving communication within the brain itself, with fewer interruptions.  

Interestingly, the relaxation training did very little to improve actual productivity among the participants. Of course, having two or three margaritas while listening to Jimmy Buffett will demonstrably relax the body, but it does not improve mental acuity or focus. In fact after about two drinks, visual focus or convergence slows by two times. And after three drinks it slows by four times. Ultimately, you get the effects of “double-vision” or become a “blind drunk,” unable to focus at all.  What happens in the eye is a useful analogy to what happens in the brain.

For more information on what you can do to improve your attention and focus in the New Year, visit the “new world” of mindfulness meditation in our book, “New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers to Emerson to Thoreau to Your Personal Practice.”