Multitasking Activates the Monkey Mind

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I had a great idea for this article, so I jumped to my computer and started typing.

While I was writing I did a bunch of things at the same time. I was typing and … went for a mug of coffee. Continued typing and … remembered that I needed to train my newly acquired 10-fingers typing and switched from 3 fingers to 10 again (and felt so cool). Ok, typing resumed … “Meow!” Is my cat just hungry once again, does he need attention or … did he break something (those woman’s instincts…)? When I came back to my table I saw my second cat drinking from my coffee mug. “Hush hush, off the table, you coffee Garfield!” I resume writing, wondering if my cats are smarter than I think and if this was an act to distract me and get a caffeine sip. And… is there now hair in my coffee? Jana, concentrate! I come up with some ideas, feel the stream of thought materialising on the screen and… notice a Facebook notification pop up. Although it’s most likely unimportant I automatically switch page and read some crap someone else posted. Wait… isn’t my way of writing also crap?

Am I superwoman? I can easily split my attention to many things at once, I can imagine myself with two cats AND two kids and still in control of everything… eh… almost everything… “You are a great multitasker!” I hear people say.

There’s one problem: if you really want to do something well, if you want to succeed in something… even if it’s just writing a good post… learn to FOCUS and train yourself regularly and consciously not to multitask. Otherwise you’ll be taken over by the monkey mind.

Monkey … ? Yes, most of us have a monkey mind. It sounds funny, but it’s actually a term. In simple words, it’s your mind on autopilot, constantly occupied with past and future thoughts and images, often very repetitive, often negative. I guess you recall your mind doing this every now and then. If your mind n-e-v-e-r enters this state, please let me know, I like meeting enlightened people. But back to my point: when engaged in several tasks at the same time, your mind enters the monkey mode quite easily and without you even noticing. No matter which form it has, it’s very distracting and seems uncontrollable.

Multitasking is a phenomenon that one busy day became trendy. People thinks it’s bliss, productivity, energy. What comes first to your mind when you hear “multitasking”? Does it give you a positive feeling? Probably yes. We have been shown, told and forced to do many things at once. This is not bad and it is often required. You can’t drive a car without turning the wheel, changing gears and paying attention to the road. The problem of multitasking is that we got stuck in this mode. When a certain task requires a single laser focus we struggle. But if you want to give your best and achieve peak performance, you need to start thinking and acting in mode “more is less” and understand that multitasking is a myth.

Why is it a myth? Scientists have confirmed that our brain is not capable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What happens is that we constantly switch between tasks. Those switches are very fast and it seems to us that we concentrate on all things at once, but that’s not what brain scans show. The consequences of constant switches are a significant decrease of productivity and increase of mistakes. That’s because we are losing a lot of mental energy (cognitive capacity), particularly in two ways.

First, by switching and resuming the previous task. These are small interruptions that irritate our thinking and consume energy.

Second, our senses get overwhelmed by too many stimuli. In my case these stimuli were looking at a screen, hearing my cat and getting carried away, leaving the table for the coffee and the cat, seeing the Facebook notification etc. Our senses should focus on one task at hand, not on many other unrelated.

If you’ve ever felt you did a lot this day but actually did not manage to do anything, welcome to my world! You may have done many things and nothing properly. This leads to frustration and stress. Psychologists know that, and technology developers as well. Nowadays you can find many tools, apps and techniques to keep focused on one thing. There are apps that block other pages (keep them offline) for the amount of time you decide. Other apps track the amount of time you spend on social networks. But as there is no app for keeping cats from meowing and drinking coffee, we all have to consciously decide to focus. It’s a matter of practice. But when you experience the feeling of being fully with the task at hand, you’ll enter a state of flow, a state where time flies and everything seems to go smooth. This is bliss, productivity and energy.  

Now you’ll say: Jana, you don’t practice what you preach! I will. But for the time being, I am enjoying my hairy coffee.