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Stop Multitasking!

January 2, 2014

In a society that values those who can juggle multiple tasks at once, the title of this blog post is an affront to their sensibilities.  Multitasking is often considered a sign of virtue and hard work.  Yet, researchers have found the opposite to be true: multitasking has a deleterious effect on our meta-cognition as well as our ability to recall information stored in working memory. (Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, Hammerness & Moore; Harvard Health Publications). In other words, it hinders us from thinking about what we are doing and even remembering what we have to do! Since multitasking is often viewed by persons with Type A tendencies as the perfect vehicle to accomplish greater goals, multitasking is perceived as a necessary prerequisite for success.

In the Harvard Health blog, author Patrick J. Skerrett, provides a harrowing example of the practical dangers of multitasking, “In a case report for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Dr. John Halamka, the chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, described the so-called mishap, which happened to a 56-year-old man with dementia who was admitted to the hospital to have a feeding tube placed in his stomach.  One of the man’s doctors increased the dose of the blood-thinner warfarin the man was taking. Warfarin helps prevent clots from forming in the bloodstream. The next day, the doctor decided to evaluate whether the man needed warfarin at all, and asked a resident (junior doctor) to temporarily stop the order for daily warfarin.  Using her cellphone, the resident began to make the change via a computerized order entry system. Part way through, she received a text message from a friend about a party. She responded to the text, but forgot to go back and complete the medication order canceling warfarin. As a result, the man kept getting a high dose of warfarin. His blood became so “thin” that, two days later, blood was spontaneously filling the sac around his heart, squeezing it so it couldn’t pump properly. He needed open-heart surgery to drain the blood and save his life.”

In addition to such practical mistakes, there are psychological effects produced by continuous multitasking. In an article published in Health Day and authored by Chris Woolston, M.S., the work of David Meyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan is cited.   “Whenever demands exceed abilities, stress is bound to follow. Multitasking is especially stressful when the tasks are important, as they often are on the job, Meyer says. The brain responds to impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones that put a person ‘on edge.’ These hormones provide a quick burst of energy, but energy won’t make multitasking easier, he says. An old pickup can’t go 150 miles per hour no matter how much fuel you put in the tank or how hard you step on the gas.  Over time, the stress of multitasking may even become dangerous, Meyer says. A steady flow of stress hormones can strain the body and threaten health. As recently reported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, numerous studies have found that on-the-job stress can cause headaches, stomach trouble, and sleep problems. Chronic work-related stress can lead to chronic problems, including back pain, heart disease, and depression.”  Dr. Meyer also found that multitasking has an effect on short-term memory as well as cause permanent damage to the brain cells that store memories.  Meyer concludes that after years of multitasking, a person may experience grave difficulty in performing a singular task.

In the Gospel and in the lives of the Saints, we find single-mindedness and a fullness of attention to whatever task or whatever person was before them. The Lord Christ counsels His disciples to strive for purity of attention as well as purity of heart when He says: “The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34) The ancient Greek word for single, ἁπλόος, used in this scriptural passage can also be translated as simple, plain, sincere, or frank. The verbal form, ἁπλόω, means to unfold or stretch out in a smooth, ordered, and simple movement. What then is a simple eye that brings light? It is an eye that stretches things out, simply, plainly, and frankly attending to one task at a time. Its opposite is an eye that is crafty, complicated, not completely honest, and eventually causing pain and toil, all notions that stem from the Greek noun πονηρός that is translated into English with the absolutist and not particularly nuanced word evil. Certainly, it goes too far to call multitasking evil, dishonest, or crafty, but it is undoubtedly more complicated than taking things one task at a time and lacks a frank simplicity and undivided attention that can bring understanding and gratitude for the joy of doing something and doing it well. Above all, doing things one task at a time makes it easier to be present before God.

We are not computers with a capacity for running more than one program at the same time and it is not only a mistake, but also impossible to shape ourselves successfully in the image of computers by applying the computational model of multitasking to our daily lives. Modern conveniences provide us with the illusion of multitasking, but in fact we merely become “careful and troubled about many things” forgetting that “one thing is needful” (Luke 10:41). Elder Paisios once commented, “Secular people say, ‘How lucky are the wealthy people who live in mansions and have all kinds of conveniences!’ In truth, blessed are those who have succeeded in simplifying their lives and freeing themselves from the yoke of worldly progress, of the many conveniences that have become inconveniences, and have consequently rid themselves of the dreadful anxiety that plagues so many, people today. If man does not simplify his life, he will end up tormenting himself. But if he simplifies it, all his anxiety will go away.”

Multitasking may be highly touted in society, but as I’ve already noted, it doesn’t really produce anything other than disturbance of soul.  In monasteries, young monks are trained in obedience, which means learning to do what one is told to do, one task at a time. The emphasis is not on getting a lot of things done at once, but in doing something with one’s whole heart as if one were serving Christ or entertaining “angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Usually the tasks are simple such as sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, or making a prayer-rope. And while the hands work, the mind can turn to God in prayer, repeating the Jesus Prayer, the Psalms, or other hymns. In this way the monk’s one task is made fragrant with prayer and alive with a sense of God’s presence.

Multitasking exacts a psychological, physical, and spiritual toll that can’t be sustained for long, but going about our work one task at a time with prayer on our lips can sustain us and enable us to sustain others. Work and prayer, ora et labora, is the only kind of multitasking known by the Church, but it is one that brings peace, calmness, and beauty into the believer’s life in contrast to multitasking in the world, which brings anxiety, stress, and sometimes fatal mistakes. The ancient patristic counsel for doing a single task with prayer is a counsel that brings deep healing to the human soul and joy as well for even the simplest and most insignificant of tasks become filled with light and so much more than they could ever be without the sanctifying influence of prayer.

  1. While it is very important to our spiritual life to have time to focus, it is a bit one-sided to make it seem like you always have that option. There are some careers or life circumstances that just don’t get a choice about multitasking. The vocation of motherhood (not just the type A moms) is a prime example. Young children and the demands of running a household rarely allow you to focus on just one thing at a time. The effects on memory and stress are exactly as described, and moms often call this “mommy-brain”. Did researchers actually find that multitasking is the opposite of virtue and hard work or did they find that it was detrimental to cognitive function and memory skills? Your statement, “Multitasking is often considered a sign of virtue and hard work. Yet, researchers have found the opposite to be true,” might have been a bit overstated. The church and her saints have found that people need to be able to focus. Researchers said nothing about virtue, at least in the quotes provided. I think it is important to debunk the myth of sucess equals multitasking. However, it is also important to encourage those who tend to multitask due to factors such as career, life circumstances, skill sets, or personality style to recognize that they need to make time to focus and to limit their multitasking when possible.

  2. Peter permalink

    I think the problem we face today is that we are almost always multitasking. It is true that some professions, including parenthood, require the ability to juggle several tasks a the same time. However, those periods of quickly shifting attention should not consume all of our time. It is important, even necessary, that we make time each day where we are still and focused. As a working parent myself, I know this is hard to do. But God provides.

    Single tasking is a virtue. We can determine if something is a virtue by what it produces (a tree is judged by it’s fruit). How safe would our roads be if drivers focused on driving and not talking on the phone, eating, texting, or even listening to the radio? The safest drivers are those who are attentive to the task of driving. How effective is a conversation if the person you are speaking with is watching TV, texting a friend, eating a sandwich, and talking to you? The best conversations are between individuals who focus solely on what the other person is saying and listen attentively. How effective is a doctor who is watching a sports game, talking on the phone, and performing open-heart surgery? The best doctors focus completely at the task of assisting with the healing of the sick. It is especially of the utmost importance to focus in our prayers. Idle, fleeting thoughts distract us from giving our full attention to God.

    • Thank you for elaborating; it was helpful.

    • Peter and Dominica,

      Thank you both for your contributions to understanding this aspect of daily life that really affects so many of us, apart from the separate issue of Type A personality traits.

      That humans multi-task, efficiently doing two tasks that require mental attention and computation, is an illusion, at least, according to neuroscientists. All we can do is one task at a time, allowing another task or process to proceed on auto-pilot, but we can shift gears very, very quickly, between two tasks. In that split-second time in which the gears are being shifted, no work is being done, nothing of value is being produced, and terrible mistakes can be made. That is really the sense of the statement. It doesn’t mean that people who multitask are not virtuous and industrious. They may be both, depending on when, where, and how they multitask. Your examples, Peter, are excellent and really pinpoint the real problem of not being able to attend fully to another human being while multitasking and the negative results that can follow suit. In approaching God and in the life of virtue, simplicity is favored over complexity, focus over distraction, one thing over many things. Just as multi-tasking may be privileged in the secular world, simplicity is privileged in the spiritual life. “Stop multitasking” may seem to be an impossible injunction for most people today, but perhaps in hearing “stop multitasking,” some multi-taskers will try to set some limits, make better choices about when they multi-task, and enjoy the benefits that those limits and those times of single-minded focus can bring. Thanks once again!

  3. mary benton permalink

    I appreciate this article, Fr. Alexis, because certainly our culture encourages to engage in unnecessary multi-tasking and it is very easy to get drawn into this. The ringing phone or sound of a text message seems to demand our immediate response – though seldom does it really require it.

    A question though, if I may: does working and praying simultaneously avoid the risks of multi-tasking – as one is still dividing attention to some degree? I have some prayer time that is devoted only to prayer and other times that are “multi-tasking”, e.g. praying along with an audio recording while doing something else. I like to do the latter, feeling that it keeps my heart more at prayer, even if my mind is only partially engaged. Yet I have sometimes wondered if it is a good practice, spiritually or cognitively.

    • Thank you so much, Mary, for your comment and your excellent question. Monks work and pray and they pray and pray (that is, they pray at work and in Church or in their cells) and both are good and blessed endeavors. In fact, I recall peeling potatoes in the kitchen of Karakallou on the Holy Mountain with several other fathers. It was an overcast day and we peeled and quietly, slowly, each at his own pace, prayed “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” That kitchen literally was transformed into a temple of God and the prayer arose as incense. I have rarely experienced such peace and sustenance even during long vigils. The Spirit, of course, blows where it will. And not every day or even most days in the monastery kitchen had that blessed atmosphere. I am simply relating this as an indication that I think praying and doing simple repetitive tasks can be an excellent practice, spiritually and cognitively. There, were, however, a number of helps in place. Everyone in the kitchen had the same goal: to pray and to peel potatoes. The amount of thought required for peeling potatoes after having peeled thousands was extremely limited. And there were next to no other distractions. I have also been with monks in the olive orchards gathering olives and saying the prayer, but being outside, there would be much more distraction, and prayer would not have the same quality. So I suppose one of the central issues is the complexity of the other task. The simpler it becomes the less it resembles multi-tasking in the modern sense. Rather the work or task becomes an accompaniment to the prayer.

      As a rule, I think it is better to be actively praying than passively listening to prayers. If one finds that one is attending very little to an audio recording of prayer, I wonder if one might be training oneself to be inattentive to the words of prayer, which would certainly not be very wise spiritually or cognitively. There is also, as you know, the issue of self-deception in which we might think we are spiritually doing more than we actually are. It might be helpful to make the distinction between a recording that can help one remain peaceful and a recording that can help one remain prayerful. I suspect having something peaceful playing as one works and offering up one’s own prayers as one can might be a better practice.

      • mary benton permalink

        Thanks, Father. You have given me much to ponder.

        My mind is quite skilled at being inattentive in any prayer format, even without training :-). But you make some very good points.

        I heard someone comment years ago that they liked being able to attend church (RC) frequently because simply being there was spiritually strengthening, even when the mind was not able to fully engaged for one reason or another. Now I realize that being there AND being fully engaged with mind and heart is better still.

        I think there is a balance needed – for me, anyway – between a mindful acceptance that my mind will wander (lest I compulsively expect perfection), and giving myself permission to be lazy (by not seeking ways to be more fully attentive). I likely need a similar balance between being compulsively religious and being watchful for the self-deception you alluded to.

        …Did I mention that I’m compulsive? 🙂 Thanks again for the helpful suggestions.

  4. You are quite welcome, Mary!

    I also agree with you on the need for a mindful acceptance that the mind will wander, because that is something the mind does, but we have the choice to direct it in beneficial ways, and that choice is precious and really defines our lives. Again, I really appreciate your input and sharing your experience with us.

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