Sending a text message while walking down the street? Finishing a presentation and talking to your office colleagues about the next project? And that eternal classic: firing off e-mails while participating in a phone conference? Don’t we just love being able to do all these things at once with our electronic devices, multitasking our way through work and daily life?

Well, we might be on the wrong track. More and more studies are cautioning that multitasking might decrease efficiency instead of increasing it.

With multitasking, the general idea is that we complete more than one task at a time, thus potentially increasing our productivity. Now, however, the experts in the labs are cautioning us that humans are not built to multitask because our brains do things sequentially, one after another. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly,” says neuroscientist Earl Miller from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Inc. magazine. “And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

And think about it – when you’re on your smart­phone sending an e-mail while simultaneously listening to someone making a presentation, do you really focus on both at a time?

To check this, researchers from Stanford University in California compared people who called themselves “heavy multitaskers” with a group who said they only do one thing at a time. The results showed that the mul­ti­task­ers lost flat out: not only did they perform worse, but they were actually slower at switching from one task to another. This “switching cost” can add up to 40 percent of someone’s productive time, noted the study’s author, David Meyer.

And it seems that always jumping around in our brain increases stress and lowers our IQ. A study at the Uni­ver­sity of London showed that multi-taskers experienced IQ-drops similar to people skipping a night of sleep. The scientists see only one exception: multi-tasking works if we combine a physical task that we do very often and that we are very good at with a mental task, such as walking and talking at the same time.

So are multi-taskers deluding their brains into how successful they are? There are a growing number of peo­ple who would argue just that and who are championing the polar opposite of multi-tasking. Their buzz-word is “mindfulness.”

Improvement in productivity

More and more companies believe that mindfulness is the way forward: yoga mats are everywhere in Silicon Valley companies. Financial powerhouse Goldman Sachs offers meditation sessions in its office building in downtown Manhattan. And even Midwestern mainstay General Mills, producer of such classic household brands as Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, has meditation rooms in every one of their office buildings.

So what is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, probably the best known teacher of mindfulness worldwide, calls it “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Basically, it means being present. Being fully in the present moment, aware of your thoughts, physical sen­sa­tions and surroundings. Contrast this with what most of us tend to do: being somewhere and not really taking in the moment at all, but focusing on the next issue, the next meeting, the next item on the task list.

In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes program, ­Kabat-Zinn describes it this way: “When your alarm goes off and you jump out of bed, what is the nature of the mind in that moment? Are you already like, ‘oh my God’ your calendar pops into your mind and you’re driven already, or can you take a moment and just lie in bed and just feel your body breathing. And remember, ‘oh yeah, brand new day and I’m still alive.’ So, I get out of bed with awareness, brush my teeth with awareness. When you’re in the shower next time, check and see if you’re in the shower.” Because you may not be for, according to Kabat-Zinn: “You may be in your first meeting at work. You may have 50 people in the shower with you.”

After finishing a PhD in molecular biology and ­setting up a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, Kabat-Zinn developed an eight-week program called the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, bringing together “mindfulness meditation and yoga.” Nowadays, more than 720 clinics in the US teach it and the corporate world is plainly interested in it.

One of the first companies to try Kabat-Zinn’s med­i­ta­tive approach was Promega, a US biotech company, with surprising results. Those in the company that learned MBSR meditation techniques “were less stressed, felt less anxiety and had more energy at work” reports David Gelles, author of Mindful Work: how meditation is changing business from the inside out. The meditation was even said to have boosted their immune systems, when those that had practiced mindfulness techniques were found to have “significantly more flu antibodies in their blood.”

US-based health insurer Aetna discovered that its employees who took a Mindfulness at Work course paid $US2,000 less in health care costs annually.

No wonder mindfulness advocates see it as a panacea to all sorts of ills. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer thinks there are “many other advantages to mindfulness. It’s easier to pay attention. You remember more of what you’ve done. You’re more creative.”

It’s easier to pay attention. You remember more of what you’ve done.
You’re more creative.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer on mindfulness

How does mindfulness do when pitted against multitasking? A University of Washington study tested this with three groups of human resource professionals who were either trained in mindfulness, learned simple relaxation techniques or did nothing. After eight weeks, the participants were tested as if it was their first day at the office and bombarded with different organizational tasks. Those with the mindfulness training managed to stay better focused: compared to the other two groups, they were 20 percent more concentrated, reports David Gelles. And they were 20 percent less likely to “bounce around from one thing to the next.”

With so much going for it, might it be time to give mindfulness a go? Whatever you are doing – getting out of bed, eating your lunch or sitting in an office meeting – check: are you living, fully present, in the moment however mundane it seems? Or is your mind racing at a million miles an hour (perhaps while you’re also checking your smartphone) as you hurtle towards your next meeting or deadline?

If the answer is: “Sorry, I haven’t got time to think about that right now,” you should definitely try to spend some time on the path marked “mindfulness.” — Margaret Heckel

Published: November 2015

Graphic: Till Nows