Are you proud of being an excellent multi-tasker? Do you thrive off the adrenaline rush that comes from doing at least 10 things at once? Maybe you feel like there's not enough time in the day to get everything done, so you never do just one thing at a time. It's hard not to do a lot of things at the same time, but new research shows that multi-tasking actually means you get less done and it's not done as well. The impact of multi-tasking on your health may take a while to show up, but according to yoga and Ayurvedic philosophy, this lack of focus creates Vata imbalance and keeps you from achieving optimal health.
Research Shows Multi-Tasking Is Less Efficient
In a 2009 Stanford University study, the researchers found that people considered to be high multi-taskers had an inability to ignore distractions and to keep things separate in their minds.
They made more mistakes and their memory was poorer. It was suggested in this study that by doing less, you might accomplish more. The American Psychological Association also released a study about multi-tasking that revealed "that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Thus, multi-tasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end."
Multi-Tasking Is Impossible To Avoid In Motherhood
"In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."
— Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain
Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, described multitasking in relation to parenting as the "ability that comes from having one eye on the child while you try to talk to the plumber and worry about something else (like your doctoral dissertation) at the same time." Every mother knows that it is virtually impossible to only do one thing at a time when you're with your kids. It's more like being pulled in 1000 directions at once, and that's before you try to get some work done. Some speculate that there are differences in the male and female brain that enable moms, along with the help of some hormones, to be superb multi-taskers. The price Moms pay, unfortunately, can be extreme fatigue and forgetfulness. There's hardly any way around it, and it all gets done, but with a cost.
Ancient Yoga Philosophy Teaches The Virtues Of Concentration
“ The mind is restless, turbulent and strong, as difficult to curb as the wind. ”
Much of modern day Yoga practice is based on the classical Indian text, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In it, Patanjali defines "Yoga" as "the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." The path of yoga is then described as having eight limbs (= Ashtanga Yoga), one of which is called "dharana." Dharana is translated as concentration, or fixing the consciousness on one point, and is considered essential for meditation. The inability to control the mind in this way is one of the causes of suffering. We've all experienced this. Sometimes we can't sleep because our minds are so active, or we worry about something all day. Yoga teaches us to pay attention to the breath to stay centered, focused, and grounded. This reins in the active mind and allows us to pursue the spiritual path.
How Multi-Tasking Impacts Our Health
When we do 10 things at the same time, it creates a lot of excitement in our nervous system. Our bodies actually go into a hyper mode to do it all. Ayurveda describes this as a wind stirring in our body. Wind is another word for Vata. People with Vata constitution tend to be hyper by nature (take it from me!) But anyone can get a Vata imbalance from doing too much for too long. This usually manifests as nervousness, anxiety, forgetfulness, insomnia, spaciness, possibly even low libido and back pain. Vata causes irregularity - could be in digestion, sleep, appetite, or sex drive. To balance Vata, it is important to not only treat with diet and herbs, but to also slow down, stay focused, keep to a routine, and do one thing at a time.
The One-Thing-At-A-Time Experiment
Before writing this blog post, I decided to try it myself to see if I could really do only one thing at a time. I'm used to talking on my cell phone while I'm doing the dishes while I'm doing the laundry while I'm drinking my tea. Or working on Bodhimed.com in between patients at my office while I catch up on paperwork. But I also remember the stillness of mind that I used to enjoy when I lived in an ashram and devoted myself to a slower and more contemplative pace. So I was confident that the payoff would be there. I spent a full day remembering to do only one thing at a time. I ate my lunch in complete silence, by myself with no computer or magazine. I not only got a lot done, but I really enjoyed every moment of the day. I felt calmer than usual, and as a result my kids were calmer too (yay!)