My first marketing job was with a major film company. Survival meant being fast, accurate and able to outwork the boss, who worked around the clock. Doing 2, 3 eventually 4 tasks at the same time became my norm.
Fast-forward 10 years. After a decade of multitasking I was accomplished professionally but not much fun personally. My attention span lasted about a minute. Conversations needed to be efficient and to the point, or I lost patience. I was obsessed with getting as much done as possible within a minimal amount of time.
Fast-forward another 5 years. I’m a working mother. Having it all meant doing it all, and cramming as much “doing” into every moment of the day as possible. Playing with my kids meant putting toys on the floor while I sat on the sofa checking emails. One day, to get my attention, my toddler would slam my laptop closed on my fingers. That hurt.
Then I developed a case of the blues. At the suggestion of my doctor, I stopped multi-tasking. At first, paying attention to one thing at a time felt decadent. The opposite of what I expected happened. I was able to keep deadlines, deliver better work, and give the important people in my life the proper attention.
A sagacious and knowing friend explained to me what happened. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s perception of pleasure, is short-circuited when we multi-task. When we focus on one thing at a time, we allow dopamine to flow. Flow, that euphoric state of effortless concentration and enjoyment while performing a task, is where creativity and skill mastery thrive. Being in flow creates feelings of confidence, calm and happiness.
Mindfulness, originating from Buddhist tradition, has become a nonsectarian practice adopted by a myriad of professionals from athletes to web developers to executives. The essence of mindfulness is staying in the present moment. This is a skill that must be practiced to see the benefits. Psychologists believe that much of our stress and anxiety spring from thoughts of the past and worries of the future. When our thoughts drift backwards or forwards, the practice of mindfulness brings us back to the present.
I find that pursuing focus and presence brings me closer to my goals then spreading my attention across multiple tasks and topics at the same time. The experience of flow that I now find so often in my day seals my intent to push away multi-tasking for good.