I Used to be a Proud Multitasker

I used to be proud of my multitasking. Emails, phone calls, texts, people knocking at the door, requests from other departments, projects…. I was able to juggle them well for a time. An article I just read this afternoon, however, has helped me put my finger on why it doesn’t work anymore. The article is entitled: Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

As a sister doing ministry in a digital world I feel simultaneously the pull of the divine Voice, Truth, Love inviting me to run in the ways of freedom and self-offering, to listen at the feet of the Master, as well as the exhaustion of trying to do 10 jobs at once as the article states. It is not only that I am wearing 10 hats, which I am, it is that each “job” runs at full speed all the time requiring constant attention as bits and pieces of it pour into my email box, just to give one example. Each jotted note requires micro-decisions that honestly deserve macro-research. In between the important emails are little bits of information about people, notices about sisters from another province in another country who have died, a back and forth communication I had with a friend about the Fathers of the Church, some ads, the notice that my Amazon book has been sent, a request from my superior for an email list, information for a fundraising page I need to send a company strewn throughout four emails, offline chat messages to be responded to, you get the idea. The experience is not unique to me. As the neuroscientist said:

Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot‑smoking.

To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important. Why would anyone want to add to their daily weight of information processing by trying to multitask?


The interesting point that this article makes is that it describes the biological component to all this. Yes. I am not going crazy. My brain is actually being scrambled by multitasking.

Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.

Levitin ends the article with the description of an experiment done on rats which also helps understand what is happening not only in the brain, which is the point of the article, but also, I would say, in the spirit.

In a famous experiment, my McGill colleagues Peter Milner and James Olds, both neuroscientists, placed a small electrode in the brains of rats, in a small structure of the limbic system called the nucleus accumbens. This structure regulates dopamine production and is the region that “lights up” when gamblers win a bet, drug addicts take cocaine, or people have orgasms – Olds and Milner called it the pleasure centre. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send a small electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens. Do you think they liked it? Boy how they did! They liked it so much that they did nothing else. They forgot all about eating and sleeping. Long after they were hungry, they ignored tasty food if they had a chance to press that little chrome bar; they even ignored the opportunity for sex. The rats just pressed the lever over and over again, until they died of starvation and exhaustion. Does that remind you of anything? A 30-year-old man died in Guangzhou (China) after playing video games continuously for three days. Another man died in Daegu (Korea) after playing video games almost continuously for 50 hours, stopped only by his going into cardiac arrest.

Each time we dispatch an email in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something. Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially (in a kind of weird, impersonal cyber way) and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.

This morning I woke up and, it being Sunday, I had a choice whether to go to breakfast or to go straight to the chapel to prepare for Liturgy. I distinctly heard Jesus’ voice saying: “Don’t you feel as excited about running to my feet as you do about breakfast?” There at his feet all morning, I allowed myself to be filled with the fountain of life welling up within me. Gradually I was overcome again with the joy of his presence, a joy which for the saints substituted for everything else they could ever want. The Spirit, both divine and human, demands time, patience, love, presence, and a connection much deeper than flipping an idea into a magazine or posting an article with a quick comment.

I want to protect my mind and my spirit and create Connected time: time that I don’t need to make immediate decisions, process too many bits of information (or try to find places to file them away somewhere for future reference), or run after projects others have decided are important. These are my resolutions:

1) Schedule light and give everything its due time: Schedule Monday to Wednesday. As a team lead, projects are given to me constantly and unexpected research is required so decisions can be made. If Thursday and Friday are free then I can continue moving things to later in the week because  there is time built in for that.

2) Don’t check email or answer the phone till noon. If certain people really need to reach you give them a special email or assign them a particular sound alert. Otherwise, approach the day with your own plan, doing the most important tasks, till noon. After that the day can split open with everyone else’s requests and needs.

3) Create sacred spaces in the week that are for more creative work, whether that is writing, studying, planning or reflecting. I’m learned not even to go into my office during these times. The different space, the solitude, the absence of stimulation is healing.

4) Jesus must have multi-tasked! He always seemed to have unexpected requests for healing and food and teaching that he responded to by dropping everything else. By dropping everything else. I want to work on each task, as if it were the only thing in the world deserving my attention at the moment. Because it is!

5) Play before the face of the Father. By immersing myself in the Father’s gaze, I can attend to what God is doing at any moment, communicating with him, and through him to others. Centered, unified, I will be doing only one Task, with a capital “T”, and become a channel of the Father’s mercy through every little task I complete in the day.


2 thoughts on “I Used to be a Proud Multitasker

    1. Dear Angela,
      Many people go off topic, we all need a place to pour out our thoughts. The trick is to find the right place for that to happen. Unfortunately this blog isn’t that place. I’ll pray that you find someone that can be that friend and for whom you can be a friend. Blessings, Sr. Kathryn


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