The Myth of Multitasking


Multi tasking is a way of life. Otherwise how could we manage a home, job, friendships, schedule (ours and our kids, for those who have them), church involvement, working out or whatever hobbies we enjoy…and still have time to eat, sleep and be sane?

I’m here to expose a myth: multi-tasking is needed but isn’t always good. Our culture applauds multi-taskers as capable go-getters whose competence is proven by their ability to get a lot done at the same time. Have you heard it said, “If you need something done ask a busy person to do it?” I have. And I’ve been one of those busy people folks ask to do stuff. I’ve prided myself in multi-tasking and thought I did a pretty good job of keeping numerous plates spinning. And, yes, I’m one of those people who admired fellow plate-spinners as being respectable and competent and a preferred source of help because they know how to get the job done.

Last year I took a CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation) class taught by author, counselor and teacher Dr. David Powlison. He surprised me by saying that part of the problem with people, and especially relationships, today is that we’re designed to be mono taskers.

Mono tasking? How in the world is that possible in today’s fast-paced world? In order to keep up with everything I have to jump from laundry to puppy training to email (personal and work) to texting a friend about her doctor appointment to checking Facebook or I might miss something!

Mono tasking doesn’t mean doing only one thing at a time; rather, it means focusing on one thing and doing it well.

My counseling classes are online and involve watching a weekly 3-hour lecture. Dr. Powlison encourages his students to do one simple thing to ensure the success of the course: while watching the lecture, turn off the cell phone, close down email, and refuse to do anything for that three hours except takes notes and pay attention to the lecture.

But what if I miss an important email from a client or an urgent phone call or text from a family member? My goodness, what if someone posts something important on Facebook and I don’t learn about it until that afternoon?!? And I probably set up some computer alerts I’ll miss that could mean I told someone I’d get back to them by noon and now it’ll be at least 3 PM!

I decided to follow my professor’s advice. I started turning off my phone, closing Outlook, ignoring the doorbell and disciplining myself not to open the Internet for any reason. It was harder than I thought, but I had to admit I noticed a difference the very first time: I listened better and retained more from the lecture than I had in previous ones. I sensed the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudging about an area of needed change in my heart. I took better notes.

Then I started practicing mono tasking in other settings. Honestly, I began seeing how quickly my mind tended to wander during conversations with people (“Hmmm…I wonder when he’ll stop talking so I can say what I was just thinking? And, wow, I forgot to pick up that prescription at CVS”); while listening to sermons (“Hey, I wonder if they’d like to join us for lunch and ugh, I forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner and I can’t forget to ask Jaime if she brought my pie pan this morning”); and while having my devotions (“Gosh, that client didn’t get back to me again, I better check my email real quick to make sure I didn’t miss it and oh, I have to remember to pray for Grace’s appointment today; wait, don’t I have to get my blood work done this week?”).

Do you think our minds have become so accustomed to multi-tasking that we lack the self-control to do just one thing well?

Biblical scholars and counselors like Dr. Powlison aren’t the only ones sounding a warning about the multi tasking myth. A 2011 blog post on Psychology Today warns: “…scattering attention among tasks is a bad idea, not just because it’s difficult to keep up the juggling routine but also because it saps our ability to think creatively. The more tasks you add, the less efficient your brain is, and the less likely it is to focus on the most important task. If you are allowing yourself to be besieged by an influx of information, you are more likely to have trouble making the creative leap required for original thought — or to make wise decisions.”

Creative thought? Who needs that when the internet provides easy access to how to think or build or create by someone else who’s already done the leg work? Wise decisions? Who really needs to think through things when we can make choices that can be later corrected if needed? Besides, there’s stuff to do and people to see and places to go and decisions that need to happen…now.

As I’ve started disciplining myself to do simple things like completely ignoring my phone when I’m talking with a friend, closing down email when I’m listening to worship music or prayerfully asking God for help to have self-control over my wandering thoughts during Sunday morning messages I’m seeing how much I’ve missed over the years as the “juggling routine” became such a habit. Even worse, I joined the culture in applauding myself for being a successful multi tasker people could turn to when they needed something else done.

The truth is I was too often missing many of the nuances of living and loving in a distracted world. Missing that still small voice of the Spirit while reading the Bible because I was moving my eyes across the page thinking about what I needed to get to next while God sought to move my heart to experience His love afresh. Missing the way someone momentarily searched my eyes for affirmation of what they just said to me because I was glancing at my phone to see who just texted me. Missing the sheer stress-relieving joy of listening to birds chirping while I walk my dogs because I’m rehearsing a difficult conversation the day before, and how I wish I had said this or that differently.

At Redeemer Church this Sunday our pastors are starting a series called Unplugged: Finding Peace in a Digital Age. As a recovering multi tasker I want to play special attention to this series – including the pastoral concerns and biblical truths that are driving it. I’ll need to continue to answer the doorbell while trying to potty train the puppy and cooking dinner. That kind of multi tasking is a part of normal life. But I want to continue learning how to live a more focused life: one that understands when it’s important to discipline myself to love and be loved by God and others by thinking about just one thing at a time.

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