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The Bookblog / 25 March 2022

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Multi-tasking is bad for you
... and the antidote is ever so easy

We have optimised our lives for multi-tasking. It seemed like such a good idea.

But many of the things that cause us stress... that make our lives feel less enjoyable... and perhaps even risk the future of our planet... are rooted in this ubiquitous approach to efficiency. We know it so well we rarely take the time to think about it — typical multi-tasker.

“Yes, I’m busy. Yes, we should do something about the environment. Educating our children is a top priority. I need to work at the weekend. I should read that article about mindfulness. Got to remember to go shopping though. Argggghhhh! Too. Many. To-dos. If only I were better at multi-tasking…”

Sometimes life can spiral into ever-more-demanding multi-tasking. Keep those plates spinning, here comes more plates. The better we get at the job, the more we have to do it. Longer term projects become harder to justify. Anything vague becomes an annoyance.

It’s not only you and your personal life. Just look at government policy.

Do we really get the best results when we try to do lots of things at once? Does it help us stick with the things that are important? Is it good for us?

The rise and rise of multi-tasking is a cultural phenomenon rooted in the way each one of us thinks. It feels compelling, but it hasn’t always been this way and it can change.

We break the pattern by changing the way we think. The irony is, changing the way we think is precisely the kind of task a multi-tasker doesn’t like. It seems vague... it’s yet another thing... and it’s not a quick solve.

It takes time to learn to not multi-task. That’s the whole point: the task is to stop doing tasks, and to not solve any problems. Forget your to-do list. You have to learn to focus on one thing, and one thing only. Enduring focus; deliberately sustained attention: that’s all it is.

It sounds counter to much that we’ve learned. It is.

But it’s also very simple. And enjoyable. And relaxing. And good for you. Your attention span develops and strengthens like a muscle. You focus. You see the world beyond your to-do list, and without even trying, you inevitably re-prioritise what really matters. You’re already doing it — the point is to do yourself a favour, give yourself some credit, and do it more.

Here’s my preferred method:

Take the very same device you use to run your multi-tasking life (phone, tablet, whatever), and repurpose it to focus on one thing only — A good book.

Other methods are available, so stick with your rock-climbing, yoga, embroidery or hang-gliding if you prefer. But make sure you do it without a single task in your head.

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