We all try to do more than one thing at a time. And it does feel like you can. Like how you effortlessly hold a conversation as you drive, or cook dinner while keeping an eye on the children.
But that only works if only one of the things you’re doing requires active thought, such as reading emails or holding a conversation.
The others must be simple and well-practiced tasks, such as walking, eating and drinking, or familiar chores that you can do subconsciously. Even then, you’ll notice yourself pausing one task if another gets too complex. Like how a driver stops talking if the traffic’s suddenly heavier.
That’s because you’re not actually handling the activities in parallel, despite how it feels. You’re shifting your attention between them. And your focus is lost as you skip from one to the other.
Multi-tasking’s about cramming more into your day. Eating lunch while emailing. Talking on the phone while making dinner. And it’s manageable. But nowadays, it has a dark cousin; continuous partial attention, driven by the fear of missing out.
That consists of several activities that all demand active thought. Like emailing during a Zoom meeting. Texting during a conversation. Constantly scanning your gadgets for other opportunities, and skipping to whatever seems more important.
Continuous partial attention isn’t about packing more into your day, it’s more like a compulsion. You need to be connected and in the know all the time, whatever you’re doing. You’re always on high alert as you try to keep your top priority in focus, while simultaneously scanning your gadgets to see if you’re missing other possibilities. You always have a TV show on in the background.
Read through the comments while watching a YouTube video. Scroll through social media while watching Netflix. Endlessly interrupt your work to read an incoming notification.
Over the last twenty years, continuous partial attention has come to seem normal. And in small doses it’s fun and exhilarating.
But it also kicks in your adrenalised fight or flight mechanism. Intended for when you’re being chased by a lion, it sets off a cascade of stress hormones.
And under the hood, it’s quite gruelling. Causing a host of stress-related diseases, such as feelings of helplessness, mental fog, a lack of fulfilment and, in extreme cases, burn-out.
It can feel like you have no option but to multi-task. But just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. So, how can you cut down?
Limit distractions. Put your phone out of sight. Schedule email downloads at regular intervals. De-clutter your workspace. Work on one task at a time in short bursts.
Get organised, and prioritise your to-do list. Split out key tasks and tick off the high-impact ones first. Schedule the rest into realistic time slots during the day.
And if all else fails, take a break. A few minutes relaxing generates new connections and new ideas. Which is why inspiration so often strikes in the shower!