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Failures of the Multi-tasking Mystique

Here’s a scenario: You’re driving your children to school, drinking your first cup of coffee (that you grabbed on the way out) and checking your BlackBerry (maybe even texting at red lights) — all while trying to talk to the kids, adjust the radio and break up fights in the backseat. Is this sounding familiar yet?

Admittedly, even while writing this column my mind wanders to the busy day ahead: How will I get my son to his basketball game, my daughter to her concert and somehow get snacks and dinner figured out along the way?

I take solace (as small as it is) in that, once we get home that evening, the routine of homework and bedtime begins. Of course, after the kids are safely tucked into bed, my daily chores await: laundry, dishes, lunches to be packed and calls and e-mails to be returned.

Multi-tasking, for most of us, has become a way of life. It may seem like you are being more productive, but in fact it often leads to higher stress levels and a depletion of energy. Naturally, some stress is normal, but if it becomes too extreme, or lasts too long, stress can increase the risk of diseases like depression, heart disease and a variety of other problems.

“You aren’t going to perform as well when you’re doing multiple things as you would if you were focused on one thing,” says Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas.

One multi-tasking foray nearly all of us engage in, and may not even consider multi-tasking, is talking on a cell phone or — even more dangerous — texting while driving. According to the National Safety Council, there are 1.4 million car accidents caused by cell phone users annually.

Poldrack says that potential bodily harm is not the only negative that results from multi-tasking. He reports, based on extensive research, that multi-taskers are usually the least productive group, make more mistakes and have a harder time remembering things.

Psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, both of Harvard, say that multi-tasking can lead to “pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder,” where we are always seeking new information but have difficulty concentrating on its content.

When was the last time you were completely task-oriented, lost in the moment and entirely focused on a single task? This present-moment awareness, also referred to as “mindfulness,” can only be developed when we are not multi-tasking.

Most important, mindfulness is the practice of not missing out on your life because you were too frazzled and fragmented to really notice. While we are so busy, we tend to miss out on the special moments that happen each day — and our relationships suffer.

Start small. Try some simple, at-home exercises to practice your mindfulness by focusing on your senses. At this very moment, what do you see, smell, hear, feel and taste?

Move beyond momentary remedies and go try yoga or meditation. Only mindless tasks should be multi-tasked. Decide who and what deserve your full attention and then give it.

Chaya Selesny, LMSW, ACSW, is a therapist in private practice in Southfield. She can be contacted at



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