Multi-tasking or Uni-tasking?

As I was bustling about this morning, attending to household chores with one ear on the radio, I heard snippets of an interview about multi-tasking. I can remember a time, perhaps in the driven eighties and nineties when multi-tasking was considered a good thing, admirable even!

There’s a new phrase being coined called ‘uni-tasking’ and the notion is that consciously giving your full attention to one thing at a time is much better for mental and physical health than multi-tasking. None of us can actually multi-task anyway – we can think thoughts and do something unrelated at the same time but we can’t engage in two different complex tasks or think two things at the same time. We can flick rapidly between tasks but when we are doing that we are not giving either our full attention.

Attempting to focus on more than one complex task at any one time results in attention switching.

According to neuroscience there is a brief moment after the neurons in the working memory system have fired where they need to rest and recuperate before they can fire again – the attentional blink. The result is a pause of between a fifth and half a second where no new info can be registered. Anything that happens in this time is not noticed. A multi tasker doing business related work with the TV or radio on or chatting on the phone while updating their facebook, (I have to admit to that one!) might switch their attention a few hundred times in an hour, thus increasing the attentional blink to a significant time lapse.

Dr Craig Hassed, in his book “Mindful Learning” 2014, states, “Multi tasking is associated with being more stressed and pressured when we work. It is also associated with inefficiency, remembering less and understanding things in less depth. Part of the allure of multi- tasking is that it creates an appearance of getting more done in a given amount of time. The solution? When you notice you are multi-tasking, stop and focus again on priority no 1”.

I just got up to get a drink of water and as I came back to my studio, remembered that I needed to turn on the washing machine. As I walked into the laundry, I passed the stairway and smelled the bathroom cleaner I had put in the shower about half an hour earlier (just before I sat down to write), thinking I would leave it to do its magic before attending to it. My impulse, having turned on the washing machine, was to quickly go upstairs and clean the shower! Multi –tasking?? No I’m not cleaning the shower, I’m writing, aren’t I?

My view is that we feel as though we’re multi-tasking when we are very busy and have a lot ‘to do.’ When the mind is preoccupied with it’s to-doing, you may be thinking about all the things needing to be done, whilst doing one task. You may be switching your attention to the tasks ahead, whilst striving to deal with the task at hand. This mind set can flick us rapidly  into stress and overwhelm. Mindfulness and any creative or physical pursuit can help with this tendency.

Uni tasking or having presence of mind reduces the attentional blink, improving memory. Uni- tasking  means prioritising tasks, having a plan and just giving each task your full attention. This is a form of mindfulness. I notice when I’m drawing or painting I become more deeply immersed in that one task than any other time. I notice this with my students too, in fact, when it’s time for a tea break, often I have to repeat, “cup of tea and biscuits,” several times to shift their focus away from their drawing.

This drawing was particularly absorbing, it’s a demo drawing for teaching classical coloured pencil technique, where there is a high degree of finish. I always find this kind of drawing very meditative with its moment by moment tiny pencil movements, the ultimate form of uni-tasking.


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