The Myth of Multitasking: Longing to Be Absorbed Wholly

Friday, January 30, 2015 - 5:46am

The Myth of Multitasking: Longing to Be Absorbed Wholly

William James, famed American philosopher and psychologist, summarized attention in 1890 in this way:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

I beg to differ with the good, long-gone, doctor on one account. I don’t think everyone knows what it is. Or at the very least, we may think we know what it is, but we too rarely honor just how important it is to our experience of the world.

Further, we often seem delusional about how our attention works — that it blossoms when concentrated and, in contrast, weakens, if not dies altogether, when refracted. James went on:

“Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

This bears repeating: “It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” James wrote that at a time when the typewriter had been invented but was not yet widespread, and telephones were just becoming de rigueur in businesses and elite homes. The things that the average American had to withdraw from in order to focus on what was important and urgent and lovely were far fewer in number and far less insidious in nature.

With so much more information coming at us, so much more correspondence, so many options for being entertained, what does an “effective” person do? The common answer to that seemingly innocent question has been, as of late, multitask. Multitask better so you can do more. Walk through any cafe with a strong, consistent Wi-Fi signal and peer over the shoulders of the heavily caffeinated. You will see how faithfully we believe in our power to do it all, all at once, particularly online: ten tabs open on a browser, a GChat conversation in the right hand corner of a half-written email, a twitter stream flowing by with a thousand tributaries threatening to siphon off your attention.

At the end of a day spent flitting around the Internet without committing to one task for an extended period of time, I often feel jittery, as if I’ve been throwing back espressos on an empty stomach. In fact, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, multitasking actually creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop “effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

It also increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the flight-or-fight hormone, adrenaline. In other words, all bad things. Things that make you feel out of control. Things that make you anxious. Things that make you sick.

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell called multitasking “mythical,” and Levitin takes it a step further, describing it as “a powerful and diabolical illusion.” Study and study after study shows that multitasking is not just unhealthy and unsatisfying, but ineffective.

Before reading up on this literature, I have to admit, I thought multitasking was exhausting, but mostly benevolent — like that very high-energy friend that you can’t be around all the time, but in smaller doses, can be fun. Sure I feel jittery after too much multitasking, but sometimes, after what I think of as “just the right amount,” I feel triumphant. I feel like I’ve fooled the universe into letting me squeeze it all in. I’m a conductor in a Wonder Woman cape, wildly flapping my arms in front of the orchestra that is my life and I’ve somehow got everyone playing in synch. Listen to that crescendo, people…

But you know what? If I’m honest with myself, it’s at just those moments of “diabolical illusion,” that everything comes crashing down (including my ego). I burn myself while trying to roast cauliflower, text with my cousin, and keep my baby busy all at once. Or I show up to the airport with a terrible dehydration headache and without my phone charger. Or I forget the birthday of someone I love very much and suddenly that under control inbox doesn’t seem so awesome.

In these moments, I feel myself get psychologically and spiritually weak; where I was once a ponderosa tree, resolute about my people and preferences, my gifts and responsibilities, I’m now rotted from the inside after the pine beetle infestation of over-commitment. I’m hollow and brittle. I’m a martyr, not a mensch. I’m joyless.

The wiser part of me knows this. And yet, the allure of the “diabolical illusion” is so damn seductive. It’s like some subliminal message coded into commercials, especially those aimed at women. It’s half of all the titles in the business section of the bookstore. It’s the whole infuriating basis for the “having it all” debate that just won’t die.

I long to be absorbed wholly. I crave experiencing my own attention as a giant spotlight, flooding just that one thing that I have decided is important to focus on at this very moment. Nothing else. You can keep your Wi-Fi. You can keep your productivity experts. I’ll take flow over flitting any day.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



Well said. We never really accomplish more than one thing at a time. Multitasking simply means that we have multiple things we feel we can deal with at any one time, but we actually flit from one to the other and back quickly, deluding ourselves that nothing has escaped our attention in the process. The culture of multitasking has seduced folks into dangerous behaviors such as texting while driving. Studies reveal that we actually 'have' ceased attending to one thing (like driving) when we address another (to text). The stress we feel is the brain telling us that what we believe we are accomplishing is a lie.

Very nice piece, and I just happen to heartily agree :-).

What CM has said so well here needs to keep being said. She has a gift for observing her own experiences in ways useful to others, which I appreciate. Yes, it feels empowering to "zing" through the day like a successful silver pinball, hitting all your marks and getting those little bells from the machine. Until you stop. Until you feel your body and your spirit and their starving weakness, to use CM's term.

My students have written about how pleased and satisfied they are to watch TV, text,and do their papers at the same time. My only answer, one inappropriate to blurt out, is that in all that "success," they are handing me garbage. There is no attention to anything in itself, only to how things fits into their living patterns. Their desire to maintain these patterns smells like addiction to this layperson. I will this semester challenge to them to take pride in their voices and ask them what kind of attention that might require. Is it attention they still have?

As an easily-overstimulated person, I have to back off from the world's rhythms, or my body and psyche will be ill. Defining what is noise inside and outside my mind and what is mindful attention is saving me from living patterns that actually cannot not work for me. When I fall into them, I sure know it.

Thanks for saying this so well. We naturalize this idea, stop seeing it, leave it unchallenged. Thanks for revealing it yet again.

As I type this, I have one, two...twelve tabs open, one of them Gmail, on which I have two GChat conversations going. It took me about ten minutes to finish reading this piece, because I kept going back to other tabs and reading a couple paragraphs of some other interesting articles, then flitting back here, then switching over to Lightroom to edit some photos, then checking Facebook, etc. etc. I, too, long to be absorbed wholly. The moments when I find myself focusing on just one task for an extended period of time (this usually only happens off the screen, when I'm reading a book far away from my computer and phone, or going on a hike somewhere with no service) are glorious and peaceful. And yet I continue to fall for the idea that I am being incredibly productive when I multitask just because my mind is overwhelmed with information and I've tricked it into feeling helpfully busy when I'm really just wasting a whoooole bunch of time. In other words, I feel ya sista.

As a professional actor I am grateful for the periods of intense focus my work demands. From the hours spent alone in a room memorizing lines to the on stage moments when, in order to realize a "successful" performance, you must give over your focus entirely to the story and the others sharing the stage with you. So while I am not always successful controlling the multi-tasking demon that feeds off the weaknesses of my inner (first-born, only-girl, over-achieving) child, I am grateful for "work" that provides that giant spotlight. Thank you for this essay and for the opportunity to make this practical connection to my own life.

Sorry I haven't heard of you.What have you acted in?

Thanks for sharing your experiences on this very packed subject that's close to many of our hearts & fingertips. Your work & words weave a graceful new story that demonstrate the power of concentrated, contemplative focus on a regular basis. The proof is in the pudding & I thank you for it.

Flow over flitting any day, yes! If you have not yet read or come across "Flow:the Psychology of Optimal Experience,"by Csikszentmihalyi. His research with creativity and artists and flow states of mind is directly connected to your stream of inquiry here. I enjoyed the article and this imprtant topic--thak you!


"Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows." --Henry David Thoreau

As the late Clifford Nass demonstrated, there's an inverse relationship between how effective people THINK they are when they multitask, and their actual productivity. But a very simple test can reveal the real cognitive costs of multitasking:

1) Take a stopwatch and time how long it takes you to count from 1 to 10.
2) Next, time how long it takes you to recite the first ten letters of the alphabet (A to J).
3) Finally, time how long it takes to recite 1, A, 2, B... to 10, J.

Now, these are two things you've done forever. But chances are, when you try to toggle between them-- when you multitask between these two amazingly simple tasks-- it takes longer than doing them separately.

Multitasking and digitally-driven distraction don't just erode our capacity to focus; they absorb the time we might used to spend mind-wandering. We don't think of this as a valuable way to spend time, but as psychologists have recently discovered, it's important for our creativity and mental well-being. And, while it may seem counter-intuitive, our capacity to focus and mind-wander now appear to be related: each ability complements and deepens the other.

Zen is doing one thing at a time

Multitasking?? sometimes I can't even do one thing at a time! Great article, bringing personal experience, physiology and William James together to remind us of the effects of our addiction to distraction and its consequences....hoping that some of the antidotes - mindfulness and attention training - help us recover soon. Thank you.

Great description of the problem. The Zen practice of sitting still and watching our breath... is a way of practicing mindfulness. Mostly closed eyes shut out the outside and let in just enough light to keep memories, dreams and reflections at bay. Thoughts still pull us out or in. Simply come back to the balance point and forgive being distracted. Some days, when I count my breath from 1 to 10, I don't get past 1. It never is perfect, but always worth practicing.

I find that choosing one task out of many, working with that one thing, I feel happy, expressive, rooted, purposeful, accomplishing, and calm. Above all: calm. I have made it a practice, rather than doing twenty things all at once, I choose three or four for the day; the next day I can do another two or three, plus the one that didn't get finished yesterday. In between I have little breaks: a stretch, a cup of tea, an errand, a spell in the garden. Wonderful life! At the end of the day I count my blessings and my accomplishments. And sometimes they are the same.

I have lost two positions of employment due to my "inability to multitask", AKA doing the work of more than one person in the interest of "profit" (diabolical illusion or greed). To those that swear by being able to multitask, largely women with more white matter in the brain that allows both hemispheres to more successfully interact and semi-function, I say this.....shhhhhhhhhh...hear that? It's the sound on NO ego clapping. Multitasking is No Ego Left Behind. Money used to be our servant, and now, many are its slave. It takes courage to stand in front of an ego and tell the truth.

I find the more that I practice giving my full attention to what I am doing, not only do I enjoy it more, but I notice when I'm not doing it. My relationships have deepened by just talking on the phone (not talking and being on my computer or cooking or....) and the quality of my day in general has improved by being present to what I am doing. The more I practice, the more I get and the more of the present moment I want. (Written while ignoring the ping of text messages coming at me from my phone).

I have lost two positions of employment due to my "inability to multitask", AKA doing the work of more than one person in the interest of "profit" (diabolical illusion or greed). To those that swear by being able to multitask, largely women with more white matter in the brain that allows both hemispheres to more successfully interact and semi-function, I say this.....shhhhhhhhhh...hear that? It's the sound on NO ego clapping. Multitasking is No Ego Left Behind. Money used to be our servant, and now, many are its slave. It takes courage to stand in front of an ego and tell the truth.

SO true. Now that I'm retired I have the luxury of doing one thing at a time at a comfortable pace and I LOVE it. But, at times, I still find myself speeding up because I'm so used to the adrenalin rush of go-go-go!

Tasking is analogous to queue theory. There can be one line of thoughts with one thought processed at a time; or one can have multiple lines but still (human constraints) with one processed at a time. The side-effect of the latter case is context-switching (C-S). One needs to pick-up where they left off and ensure, when it is time to switch, that there are enough "clues" to come back to.

More than once I interrupted my work to take a phone call. I would write the phone number down and forget to add the person's name. Coming back to my C-S clue ... well, sometimes I didn't have a clue whose number it was or what the call concerned!

If one is interested in being efficient, handling more, saving time and the likes, then the recommendation would be to FOCUS on one thing at a time.

This one hits home. My 1yo grand baby gets wholly absorbed...honestly it's all he seems to know how to do. I hope it lasts but too much of our world conspires against it. I share your craving, Courtney, yet recognize that so long as there's money to be made by promoting the diabolical delusion of multitasking (the biggest proponent being corporate America), it'll be around. Years ago I worked with drug addicts who'd often support one another's recovery by saying something along the lines of, "No matter what, stay away from the crackhouse." These folks fully understood that the owner of the crackhouse would likely never voluntarily put himself out of business. It'd fall on the customers to stop buying. I think of multitasking --including the neurochemical hit resulting from it--as my crackhouse and my withdrawal looks almost identical to yours (completely love your description!). But I crave the single focus and am fiercely committed to getting it back. That other road is completely unsustainable. Much appreciated.

Thank you for this reflection, I think you have hit the problem of multi-tasking right on the nose. It is something I have been thinking about a lot lately as I, struggle with it, along with so many other people. My validation has always been that all the different things I want to do are usually things that bring something positive into my life or someone else's life. But, I have started to recognize that this reasoning loses value when you don't have the time or energy to do all these different aspirations as well as you want to; and as you said, you end up dropping or forgetting the things that are the most important to you. While trying to live a more conscious and focused life I have personally found the hardest part to be tackling the feeling that I am not doing enough, the lie our society instills in us, that the quick fulfillment multi-tasking might bring us is true fulfillment. It's hard when our society measures success and value not only on the quality of what you are doing but how much are you doing. But this has also left me having to go within to discover and build a confidence within myself and personally decide what are the most important things for me to focus on. And I think this in itself is also a very important tasks to focus on.

Thanks Courtney! As a college student, this article is pretty a description of the day-in-the-life- for most people around me! Thanks for the reminder. I'm working on a research project of sorts on curiosity with my advisor and the idea of flow and the brain being mindful and wholly absorbed are definitely good to remember when we want to do it all. I only flitted away once reading your article, so it's a work in progress. Thanks for the encouragement. It is always worth it to absorb wholly and be whole.

Excellent analysis of the myth of multi-tasking. It's worth making time to quietly reflect on it.....without being distracted! I'm sure if we all made time to sit in a quiet place to empty our minds for 10 minutes or more, our brain and 'self' would be refreshed and more focused on the priorities - one at a time.

My morning routine includes 20-30 minutes of quiet time, tucked away in a corner of my bedroom. I tell myself I am on a retreat as I breathe and let go of swirling brain activity - over stimulated by life. This can bring amazing peace. I also have experienced something similar when I take notice of my tendencies to multitask and slow it all down, choosing to see the value of doing just one thing. Actually it's more like the thing I end up doing (washing dishes, knitting a row, writing a note to a friend)seems to choose me. This also brings peace and humility - it saves me from that illusion that my activities are so important.

I think peaceful surroundings play an important role in focusing our mind. To be absorbed wholly, I prefer a dim-lighted and silent surrounding.

It seems to me that my world conspires against me on this. At work I recognize that I need to set aside time to really focus on some projects, yet the job demands a constant juggling of emails, paperwork, and responses to others - a constant switching of attention that is less than optimal. It gives a wonderful adrenaline rush when it all goes well, but that doesn't happen often enough and it is stressful instead. And I never seem to get to those projects...

I guess recognizing this is a help, but the culture of my job is not going to let up on this, pace ever increasing. Still, there is much food for thought and the hope that I can think things out in a different way.

Einstein did not develop the theory of relativity while multi-tasking. His ability to let go of mental diversions created a tunnel of vision that allowed him to travel to logical destinations.

As a society we de-valued tunnel vision as we sought to see the big picture. Einstein knew that we are of two minds; the logical and the creative. Only one mind can dream of a logical destination and only one mind can travel there.... Each at its own time.

They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even - they're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks.