Training Yourself To Monotask

nico hase
September 10, 2019
A single cup of coffee

Did you know multitasking is the devil?

It's true. And there's research to prove it.

1.  Why Multitasking Is Bad

A 2009 study out of Stanford University found that multitaskers— those who work with several streams of information at once—fall short at attention tasks, memory tasks, and completing tasks.

Not only that, according to that same research, people who think they're great multitaskers actually score worse on multitasking trials than the rest of us.

Since then, other studies have found that multitasking lowers your IQ, short-circuits your brain’s efficiency, and makes it super tough to learn new things. (There is some bright side: some recent research suggests that it can sometimes boost creativity.)

 In other words, the more people multitask, the worse they are at . . . well, almost everything. So multitasking is bad. But why?

 There’s a part of your brain at the front of your skull called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex does a lot of stuff, but one of its primary responsibilities is helping you direct attention.

 Now, the prefrontal cortex has a left side and a right side. And both those sides talk to each other, and talk to the rest of your brain.

 When you concentrate on a single task, the paired sides of your prefrontal cortex can work together like two trained dancers in a beautiful waltz.

 But when you do different things—like texting and driving, or emailing while writing a report—the left and right sides of your prefrontal cortex have to split: the left side works on one thing, the right side works on another.

 Neither task gets the attention it needs. And we end up with car accidents and bad reports.

 Worse still, though, is that the more we multitask, the more we train the brain to be a scattered mess.


2.  How Mindfulness Can Help

So we should all stop multitasking. But it’s not that easy, right?

First of all, many of us have no choice, as we balance work and life and family and other demands. Take, for example, your daily workflow. You get to your desk. Check your email. Check your voicemail. Check your Slack channel. Check your to-do list. Three people stop by asking for stuff. You get a text from your mom. You get a news alert on your phone.

And then somehow you need to sift through the noise and get cracking.

Now, it’s often not possible to stop the many demands life places on us. But you can train your mind to monotask through them, rather than try to multitask them all at once.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Because when you practice mindfulness—when, for example, you bring your attention back to your breath again and again for ten minutes—you are retraining the brain to monotask.

You’re inviting those two sides of your prefrontal cortex to dance together for that ten minutes.

And if you invite those two sides of your prefrontal cortex to dance together for ten minutes every day, they are going to get really good at dancing.

Pretty soon you’ll find that your ability to stay on task in the midst of everything gets a little stronger. And then a little stronger. And if you keep meditating, your ability to focus will keep growing.

This, too, has been borne out in research, summarized in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

Folks who take an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course see a big jump in their ability to pay attention. Long-term meditators show way better focus than well-matched controls. Even just eight minutes of mindfulness decreases mind-wandering; ten (total) hours of mindfulness training increases baseline levels of both focus; and a mere ten minutes of mindfulness heals the break in focus typically associated with multi-tasking.

 When we sit down to meditate, whether we’re paying attention to our breath or repeating phrases of lovingkindness in our head, we’re training the mind to monotask all over again. We’re also healing the break in focus from all those moments we’ve multitasked in the past, and will be forced to multi-task in the future.

 By training to monotask, we’re teaching the two sides of our prefrontal cortex to dance like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

nico hase is the co-author, with his wife Devon, of the new book How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life, about the subtle art of staying clear in the middle of a crazy world.

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