Pursuing Efficiency: Multitasking or Mindfulness?

Every day we are bombarded with articles promising to uncover the keys to greater personal and professional development. Some describe multitasking as vital in achieving rapid success; on the other hand, an increasing number of studies deem mindfulness as crucial for wellbeing and peak performance. So, what’s the truth?

Multitasking is a term originally used in computing, in the ‘60s, and has since gained popularity in a human context. Thus, the word has migrated from an IBM manual to our resumes, and is now widely regarded as one of the most in-demand soft skills on the market.

That is to say, humans should act like machines. Companies aim to do more with less (human resources, money, time), employees being assigned multiple tasks in a limited timeframe. Mislabeled as a blue-ribbon attribute, multitasking gives you the illusion of increased productivity, better time management and improved competitiveness.

However, unless you are a multi-core processor, multitasking can be detrimental to your health, increasing the wear and tear on the body, also known as allostatic load. Trying to focus on two different things simultaneously wears the brain out as we constantly switch our attention between multiple tasks; it takes our brain several tenths of a second to shift attention from one task to another, building up anxiety and triggering exhaustion. And, in time, lower productivity and even a drop in IQ.

In our quest for better time management, we have brought multitasking from our jobs into our private lives as well. Our mind is constantly scanning for ideas while jogging; planning our next meeting while checking kids’ homework; charged up about our to-do list while trying to get some sleep. Attempting to do more, we end up distracted, stressed, disconnected from our inner self and from our families.

To the contrary, mindfulness means taking a step back, reminding yourself that you are human, not a machine designed for parallel computing. Through mindfulness we align ourselves to our natural rhythm, paying undivided attention to any activity we are engaged in. Also, by taking control of our mind more often, we reduce the time spent in automatic mode, restoring awareness and intention.

Being mindful allows us to fully immerse in work, making steady progress without juggling concurrent assignments or incoming emails. Of course, this isn’t meant to promote a laid-back attitude towards our job, but to simply quieten any internal or external detractors, and help our mind channel all our resources into a particular task. Scattered sunrays can start a fire when focused through a magnifying glass. Likewise, when concentrated through the lens of mindfulness, our mind can spark staggering results.

Mindfulness is a mental workout which not only enhances cognition and performance, but also leads to wellbeing by teaching us to deliberately move our attention away from stressors (e.g. self-criticism, fear, prejudice). We train our mind to work with us, not against us. 

A mindful attitude spills over into how we treat coworkers as well. Once you become aware of your own blind spots, you are more tolerant and compassionate towards others. Communication will also thrive, as you start focusing on the message delivered by your collocutor and not on your potential response. In addition, a mindful leader – calm, grounded and able to defuse stress – is more effective than a tense leader with a scattered mind, caught in the multitasking frenzy.  

In the past few years, top companies like IBM, Intel or Google have implemented mindfulness trainings for their employees. Is mindfulness a cure-all for the whole spectrum of corporate challenges? Maybe not, but it can certainly improve our resilience and bring us more clarity in the midst of today’s fast-paced lifestyle. So let’s rewire our brain for a mindful life in which multitasking remains a term used mostly in technology.