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Multitasking, unitasking and efficient attention switching

In this video, Craig Hassed discusses how the modern world with its fast pace and distraction makes being focused and calm difficult.
The topic for consideration now, is about multi-tasking, uni-tasking, and what is efficient attention switching? And how is mindfulness vital for learning and performance? Now there are some important modern challenges for maintaining mindful awareness. These include, for example, being hurried and stressed. So when we’re hurried and stressed and anxious, the executive functioning areas of our brain are not working well. We often lose focus on what we’re doing. And we start to get self-conscious and worried about the outcome, get ahead of ourselves, or start getting anxious and angry about some mistake we might have previously made. But probably one of the biggest– and perhaps even the biggest– challenge for being mindful in the modern world is complex multi-tasking.
Now there are two kinds of multi-tasking– one is simple. Say just walking in a non-complex environment and having a conversation with somebody about something important. So that’s simple multi-tasking, and that’s not a problem at all. The complex multi-tasking, well that’s a different beast. And that’s where we’re trying to pay attention to multiple complex things at the same time. Now, the unfortunate thing about that is the modern myth that we can pay attention to multiple complex things at the same time, is a myth. We only pay attention to one thing at a time.
And when we’re trying to do multiple complex things– like drive a car and talk on a mobile phone, or still writing a email while having a conversation on the phone with somebody else, for example– then we’re complex multi-tasking. Now when we’re trying to switch our attention back and forth rapidly, there are a few things we do. Firstly, we increase the amount of stress that we’re experiencing. The next thing, of course, is that we reduce our performance because we start to miss things. There are these attentional blinks, little gaps, in our awareness. And we’re not even aware that we’re missing information. And we also lose our ability to prioritise what’s important from what’s not important.
So complex multi-tasking actually reduces our performance and increases our errors. But it increases our stress, and at the end of a day of complex multi-tasking, we’re likely to feel a lot more tired than we would have been otherwise. So this is not so helpful. But efficient attention switching, now that’s a different thing. And we’ll come back to that in a moment. The other main thing is that when we’re in an environment where there is lots of sounds and noise, open plan offices, and so on– that we’re bombarded by so much distracting influences.
There might be one thing in the environment that’s relevant for us to focus our attention on, but we often get distracted by perhaps the phone going off or the conversation in the next cubicle, and so on. So how do we maintain attention on what’s important for us? And learn to be less influenced by the things we don’t need to be paying attention to? This is how to deal with distractor influence. So for example, you can do a little experiment.
You can, for example, sit down, notice something in your environment– like a noise, a sound of an air conditioner or something like that– and then, if I ask you to try and block that sound out, to try and get rid of that sound so that you can’t hear it. What will happen is that you may notice that that sound becomes even more intrusive. And so what we’re actually doing is fixating on the very thing that we’re trying to block out. Now, learning to deal with distractor influence effectively and mindfully is not quite like that. It’s not about trying to block out the things that we’re trying not to pay attention to, it’s learning not to be interested in them.
Learning not to be interested in it, that means that it makes it easier for us to be interested in what is relevant to us. So being mindful is not about blocking out the other things– it’s just letting them be there– but just preferring to be interested in the thing that’s most relevant for us. And that has an effect to reducing the intrusiveness of those other things. So being mindful means being able to sense or be present, proceeding through a task, perhaps– and maybe it’s a big task– but one step at a time, so step by step, moment by moment.
One of the things of puts a lot of pressure on us in our working or study life, for example, is that we’re maybe doing one thing but we’re thinking about the other 10, or the other 100, that we’ve got to finish by the end of the day or by the end of the year. When we’re doing that, we lose focus on the one thing we’re doing now. And we create a lot of pressure because we’re creating anticipation and anxiety, a sense of burden, a sense of urgency about all of these other things that are coming up.
So working mindfully throughout perhaps a complex or large task, writing a thesis, working on a large project at work is learning to break it down step by step. So the priority number one is the only thing that’s getting attention at any given moment. Yes, we’ll get on the priority 2 and 5 and 10 and 100 in due course, but we’re only paying attention to the one thing that matters at the time. Now what that can do, is it helps to reduce the pressure associated with a demanding work or study life. But at the same time, it helps us to function more effectively and feel calmer at the same time.
Now efficient attention switching and multi-tasking, just to come back to that for a moment. Efficient attention switching is a skill that we really need to deal with the modern world. So for example– and this was an example given by a person in a mindfulness course on week one of a programme. And she was saying, but you’ve got to multi-task these days. I mean, how can you not? She said, oh, today, lunchtime. I’m trying to eat my lunch and answering some emails at the same time. And then a phone call comes in, so I get the phone, I tuck it under my shoulder. I’m still trying to do the emails.
And then somebody walks into the office and I’m trying to answer them and still have a conversation and still do my email. And as they’re walking away, I’m thinking to myself, what did I just say yes to? Because I didn’t actually hear what the person said. Now this is multi-tasking– pressure, stress and so on. Now what does it mean to efficiently attention switch in that kind of environment? So for example, in lunch time, maybe trying to get through a couple of emails and the phone call comes in. The issue is to just leave email for the moment and just pay attention to the phone call. So just switch attention.
Doing one thing one moment, still only the doing one thing it’s just a different thing. And then, for example, somebody walks into the office. Excuse me a moment, to cover the phone, to turn the attention to the person speaking to us. So it’s still only doing one thing. Finish the conversation. Go back to the phone call. When the phone call’s finished, put the phone down and then pick up the threads of the email. So when we’re doing that, we’re actually only efficiently attention switching. One thing at a time. If we experiment with that, we may notice that we start to feel calmer, even in busy environments. But we start to get through more work, not less.
And reduce the number of errors. And at the end of the day, we may find that we’re a lot less tired than normal. And that is a really important skill we need for the modern world. It can look like multi-tasking on the outside, but when a person’s working efficiently and effectively, it’s just efficient attention switching. And so this is one of the kinds of skills that we need. Learning to use our attention in a more effective and discerning way that can really help to cope with significant amounts in their life, but to do it in a way where we’re feeling better and less burned out at the end of the day.
So, I hope that you’re going to move on to explore these issues around multi-tasking. Look at what’s happening when you’re trying to do that. Look at what happens when you’re actually efficiently attention switching. Noticing where your attention is going and how you try and deal with the influence of those distractors in your work or study life. And so experiment with this and reflect on that. And maybe you want to write some things about that in your journal and your notes. And inform other people of your insights.

Watch Craig introduce the topic of how mindfulness is vital for learning and performance.

The modern challenges for mindful awareness include being hurried and stressed, complex multitasking, and being unable to deal with distractor influence. Being able to centre, be present, proceeding through a task in a stepwise fashion, and unitasking are all ways in which we can live and work more mindfully.

The importance of efficient attention switching, as opposed to multitasking, is a vital skill for us to live more mindfully in this modern world.

This course is not designed to be therapeutic for any particular health condition so if you, as a course participant, have any significant mental or physical health concerns we suggest that it would be better not to discuss those concerns on a public forum such as this and encourage you to please seek professional advice and support.

Would you like to find out more?

If you’d like to know more about the impact of multitasking, go to See also for a link to an article by Alan Goldstein and a link to a video featuring Clifford Nass.

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Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance

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