Is Multi-Tasking an Addiction?

Posted By on August 1, 2011

Silhouette of woman juggling

In a word: Yes. I pondered this question after reading a blog post on one of my favorite sites called Tiny Buddha. The writer was discussing ways to slow down and do things one at a time, and she wrote how hard it was for her to stop multi-tasking that she wondered if she was addicted to it. I think she is on to something.

I’ve seen Multi-Tasking Addiction in my clients, my nieces and nephews, my friends, total strangers and myself.  When flying, as soon as the plane lands and taxis to the gate, you hear the tiny, chirping sounds of cell phones being turned on. Often this is accompanied by riveting conversation, such as, “Yeah, we landed.”

Some other examples I’ve seen in action:

  • People who have to play Angry Birds or check email at stoplights.
  • People who get on the elevator talking on their phone (pet peeve of mine!) or who are too busy playing on the phone that they forget to push the button or get off the elevator at their floor.
  • People who are talking to you but looking at their computer or phone while they do so.
  • People who check their email during meetings.
  • People who have their email alert flashing, IMing someone on their computer, answering texts on their cell, and trying to do some work in between.
  • Me turning off the TV to get the attention of my nephew or niece whose name I’ve been calling for 20 minutes.

So how can you break the Multi-Tasking Addiction?

  1. Just do one thing at a time. Sounds easy enough, right? You just need to drive without chatting on the phone, fiddling with the radio or eating (please, if I’m on the road with you). Just drive. See how that feels. Try it with other tasks. Just focus on a task for 20 minutes; just eat without checking email, reading or watching TV; or just talk to someone without looking at your computer or email. Just be and engage yourself with one task.
  2. Manage Your Email. Turn off the email alert and only check email at certain times of the day. Email shouldn’t be used for emergencies also. If something is urgent and important, handle it with a phone call or an in-person visit. When an email thread has gone back and forth three or four times, it’s time to pick up the phone. Delete the emails you don’t need, detach the attachments and put them on the server, and file the emails you do need.
  3. Write Stuff Down. Don’t try to keep things in your head and rely on your memory. Multi-tasking actually affects your short-term memory. Capture your action items via paper or digital means, and make sure you can access them when you need them.
  4. Determine your MITs. What are the three Most Important Things you MUST get done today? By asking yourself this question, you automatically prioritize your tasks for the day. Yes, priorities may shift during the day, but it helps you to focus and prioritize.
  5. Take a Digital Vacation. When you take your vacation, unplug from work email. Your brain and body need the rest, and you can’t fully rest if your mind is still on work. Yes, you will have lots of emails when you get back, but you will be in a better frame of mind to deal with it. A digital vacation can also include personal email and Social Media, such as Facebook. When I see people tweeting or on Facebook writing about how they’re in Paris on vacation, I always think, “Go and see Paris. Forget Twitter and Facebook.”
  6. Make a decision. Clutter piles up when you don’t make a decision, and if you have lots of postponed decisions hanging around, it can feel like you’re being attacked by a swarm of gnats. Decide what emails you need to keep, decide what papers you need, decide what bills to pay, decide what you’re having for lunch. Whatever you do, make a decision about the stuff lingering around you. No, you can’t make a decision to do it later. What are you dragging your feet on? Why? What’s holding you back?
  7. Celebrate Small Victories. Our toughest critic is usually ourselves. Celebrate the progress you make on a project. Every step forward is a win. If you clear a stack off your desk, that’s a win. If you delete a bunch of old emails, that’s a win. If you can go several hours without checking your email, and the world didn’t stop spinning, that’s a win.
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