THE BLOG

Working With Mindfulness: Overcoming the Drive to Multitask

02/26/2014 10:59 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

There is a good chance that at some point while you are reading this post, you will be tempted to do something else at the same time. Don't worry, I won't take it personally. I won't think badly of you and I won't even be particularly surprised. Every work place I visit, there is a prevailing modus operandi -- multitasking.

Yet there is a growing body of scientific evidence that multitasking makes us less efficient, less effective, more stressed and more likely to make mistakes. So why is it still so prevalent?

I believe there are three reasons why multitasking is still so popular in today's work environments. First, there are people who are not aware of the research or think they are somehow unique. For people in this camp, I invite you to engage in a debate with your boss and evaluate a financial report at the same time. If you can do both of these cognitive tasks simultaneously, please let me know. I am quite sure there are many neurologists who would love to study your brain!

For the rest of us, the other two reasons why we try to multitask is either because we have too much to do or we are not sufficiently interested or engaged in what we are doing. There is scientific evidence and practical wisdom that suggests mindfulness training can positively address both of these challenges and in the process, increase effectiveness and job satisfaction. Given the downsides of multitasking, this could be highly beneficial for individuals as well as for organizations and is well worth exploring.

Beginning with people who have a lot on their plate and feel the urge to try to do more than one thing at a time to get things done. Let's say, it is 7 p.m. and you want to get home but first you have to finish one last email. Your colleague calls and asks about an unrelated urgent issue and you can't resist the temptation to keep typing as you shift your attention between the email and your colleague. Sound familiar? Here is what some researchers found out about this common multitasking scenario.

An experiment conducted by Levy, Wobbrock, Kaszniak and Ostergren looked specifically at the effects of mindfulness training on multitasking behavior of knowledge workers in high stress environments. They found that when asked to do multiple tasks in a short amount of time, those who had been trained in mindfulness, compared to control groups, were able to maintain more focus on each task and had better memory for work details. They were also less negative about the experience and reported greater awareness and attention. In short, they were able to perform multiple tasks more mindfully.

If you are familiar with mindfulness practices, this makes sense. One of things developed in mindfulness training is to become more aware of your attention and increase your ability to choose your focus. If we can train ourselves to have more awareness and control over our attention, it makes sense that we would be better equipped to deal with a demanding work environment.

So when you have a lot to get done and you are tempted to try to do more than one thing at a time you have the mental discipline to choose. Do you continue trying to type the email and answer your colleague's questions? Or do you let go of either the email or your colleague so you can do one or the other more efficiently and effectively? It's your choice. But it only becomes a choice if you are mindful of your attention.

Shifting now to third reason why people are tempted to multitask: When they are so uninspired by what they are doing, they consciously or subconsciously look for something else to think about or do for entertainment. According to Gallop's 2011-2012 study of employees, 70 percent of Americans are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their work. As noted in the report, there is significant evidence that disengaged workers are less productive, make more mistakes, and can be more costly to employers in terms of absenteeism and sick leave.

A study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior demonstrates mindfulness training can help improve employee attitudes towards work and specifically increase engagement. Again, this makes sense. One of the basic methods of mindfulness training involves paying attention to your breath with alertness, relaxation, and a sense of curiosity. If you can train your mind to be comfortable and curious attending to your breath, it stands to reason that you could choose to apply that same orientation towards any task at hand.

Let's say you are faced with a large pile of invoices to process. If your mind starts to look for more interesting things to do, it is going to take you longer and you will likely make mistakes. If you could look at this task with a calm, clear, present and engaged mind, you will be more efficient and effective and you might even find some enjoyment in the process.

So if you managed to read to the end of this post without doing other things -- good for you! If on the other hand, you had to come back to it a couple of times, don't feel bad. Maintaining focus and interest on one task at a time is not easy. Whether we work in highly-demanding environments or are doing tasks that aren't particularly stimulating, we can all benefit from training ourselves to be more mindful about where and how we place our precious attention.