{Day 11} Single-Tasking vs Task Surfing, Pt 2


“Undertake all your affairs with a calm mind and try to dispatch them in order one after the other. If you make an effort to do them all at once or without order, your spirits will be so overcharged and depressed that they will likely sink under the burden without effecting anything.” –Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 17th century

Francis de Sales was an astute observer of human nature and a well-respected spiritual director in the 17th century. He believed that well-being lies in practicing focused attention on one task at a time, what is now being called single-tasking.  It is only recently that neuroscience has provided solid support for his observations.

The fun and wonder of having real-time arrival for my buses and GPS mapping in the palm of my hand, constant and instantaneous communication all over the world, a social network with hundreds of connections, and an awesome amount of information at my fingertips, comes the hard reality:

Without intentionally setting some boundaries, we can practice ourselves into distraction.

If you have not read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I highly recommend it, especially to those charged with educating young people. Drawing together the most recent studies on the brain, John Medina, a faculty member at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, offers clear arguments for why multi-tasking is simply bad for the brain.

The reality: our brains fake multi-tasking.

What looks like multi-tasking, or what I call task surfing, is simply rapid shifts between tasks that ultimately burdens our short-term memory. It’s not unlike having multiple windows open on a computer. As with a computer, our short-term memory can only hold so much, and over time, multi-tasking can begin to degrade our short-term memory capacity. Our brains simply burn out.

This is difficult news in a society that values people who (seem to be able to)  do many things at once.

Here’s how the brain handles a task:

  1. My brain shifts attention to the task at hand, say, to write this blog post.
  2. With the initial shift of attention, my brain runs a search for neurons capable of working on the blog post, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This takes several tenths of a second to complete. Right now my neurons are happily humming along as I think and type and ponder some more.
  3. But, oh, I haven’t checked my email in a while. So I decide to shift my attention. My brain disengages from writing on the blog, drops it into short-term memory, and clicks over to email.
  4. My brain begins a search for email-reading neurons, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This shift takes time to complete. The blog-post writing neurons shut down.

Every time we shift our attention, this process must be completed step by step. Every time.

This is why driving and talking on a cell phone, or even reaching for a something, is so dangerous. The brain cannot perform two high level cognitive functions simultaneously–there has to be a shift of attention.

A person on a cell phone while driving has a reaction time similar to someone driving while intoxicated.

Medina argues that multi-tasking also leads to a task taking 50% longer and often with 50% more mistakes.

Now, I would like to distinguish between that heightened awareness and flow that happens when we are focused on an activity. In this case, there may be lots of information being processed at once, such as when I’m out taking photos–my senses are expanded wide to catch the next shot. While there would be some shifting of attention, the overall focus is on the activity of taking photos, rather than repeated interruptions to focus on something completely different.


Task surfing makes me feel like I’m accomplishing a lot, but in truth,  I don’t accomplish all that much, and the day becomes a blur, lost in the foggy in-between of attention shifting.

Constant task surfing drains energy. It affects memory, especially retention of information gained during a surfing period. And, even more, there isn’t much lasting delight in doing the tasks.

Task surfing may give a surge of short-term pleasure as the brain experiences new information, psychological validation, or relief from boredom, but it doesn’t give the heart long enough to engage and feel lasting enjoyment.

To top it off, I have found that my overall ability to focus greatly diminishes when I’ve fed my brain a steady diet of rapid distractions. It actually becomes more difficult to focus when I want to.

Sometimes repeated shifting from task to task is necessary, such as when caring for young children, or fulfilling other responsibilities which demand splitting attention among many activities. The key is becoming aware of when we are shifting because it is necessary, and when we are task surfing.

Practice: Pay attention today to when you shift your attention from task to task, why your shift it, and how you feel.

31 Days

This is part of an on-going October series on Contemplative Living. Due to a blog meltdown, I am slowly catching up on posts from the past two days. If you would like to read it from the beginning, the first day is here.