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The Myth of Multitasking: Longing to Be Absorbed Wholly

William James, famed American philosopher and psychologist, summarized attention in 1890 in this way:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

I beg to differ with the good, long-gone, doctor on one account. I don’t think everyone knows what it is. Or at the very least, we may think we know what it is, but we too rarely honor just how important it is to our experience of the world.

Further, we often seem delusional about how our attention works — that it blossoms when concentrated and, in contrast, weakens, if not dies altogether, when refracted. James went on:

“Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

This bears repeating: “It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” James wrote that at a time when the typewriter had been invented but was not yet widespread, and telephones were just becoming de rigueur in businesses and elite homes. The things that the average American had to withdraw from in order to focus on what was important and urgent and lovely were far fewer in number and far less insidious in nature.

With so much more information coming at us, so much more correspondence, so many options for being entertained, what does an “effective” person do? The common answer to that seemingly innocent question has been, as of late, multitask.

Multitask better so you can do more. Walk through any cafe with a strong, consistent Wi-Fi signal and peer over the shoulders of the heavily caffeinated. You will see how faithfully we believe in our power to do it all, all at once, particularly online: ten tabs open on a browser, a GChat conversation in the right hand corner of a half-written email, a twitter stream flowing by with a thousand tributaries threatening to siphon off your attention.

At the end of a day spent flitting around the Internet without committing to one task for an extended period of time, I often feel jittery, as if I’ve been throwing back espressos on an empty stomach. In fact, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, multitasking actually creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop “effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

It also increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the flight-or-fight hormone, adrenaline. In other words, all bad things. Things that make you feel out of control. Things that make you anxious. Things that make you sick.

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell called multitasking “mythical,” and Levitin takes it a step further, describing it as “a powerful and diabolical illusion.” Study and study after study shows that multitasking is not just unhealthy and unsatisfying, but ineffective.

Before reading up on this literature, I have to admit, I thought multitasking was exhausting, but mostly benevolent — like that very high-energy friend that you can’t be around all the time, but in smaller doses, can be fun. Sure I feel jittery after too much multitasking, but sometimes, after what I think of as “just the right amount,” I feel triumphant. I feel like I’ve fooled the universe into letting me squeeze it all in. I’m a conductor in a Wonder Woman cape, wildly flapping my arms in front of the orchestra that is my life and I’ve somehow got everyone playing in synch. Listen to that crescendo, people…

But you know what? If I’m honest with myself, it’s at just those moments of “diabolical illusion,” that everything comes crashing down (including my ego). I burn myself while trying to roast cauliflower, text with my cousin, and keep my baby busy all at once. Or I show up to the airport with a terrible dehydration headache and without my phone charger. Or I forget the birthday of someone I love very much and suddenly that under control inbox doesn’t seem so awesome.

In these moments, I feel myself get psychologically and spiritually weak; where I was once a ponderosa tree, resolute about my people and preferences, my gifts and responsibilities, I’m now rotted from the inside after the pine beetle infestation of over-commitment. I’m hollow and brittle. I’m a martyr, not a mensch. I’m joyless.

The wiser part of me knows this. And yet, the allure of the “diabolical illusion” is so damn seductive. It’s like some subliminal message coded into commercials, especially those aimed at women. It’s half of all the titles in the business section of the bookstore. It’s the whole infuriating basis for the “having it all” debate that just won’t die.

I long to be absorbed wholly. I crave experiencing my own attention as a giant spotlight, flooding just that one thing that I have decided is important to focus on at this very moment. Nothing else. You can keep your Wi-Fi. You can keep your productivity experts. I’ll take flow over flitting any day.

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