Are you a proud media multitasker? Better close out the 12 open windows on your laptop, turn off the pinging smartphone and pull out the earbuds.
You may actually be losing days each year to this juggling. And the intense rush of attempting multiple things at once, says the author of a new book, might be addictive.
Anne Grady, a specialist who has worked with Dell, State Farm, Anheuser-Busch and other organizations on rebooting effectiveness, learned this self-sabotage on her own clock. As a full-time corporate consultant and former single parent of a severely mentally ill son, Grady said she was that fried multitasker.
Such people functioning at sustained high levels of intensity, Grady said, may be hooked on the “high” of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
“Like many other drugs, adrenaline and stress are making us sick,” she says. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms. Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
On what Grady calls stress addiction: “Our brain releases chemicals when we are under stress that are meant to protect us. The same shot of adrenaline that allowed us to run from a saber-tooth tiger is triggered when we are under stress. This shot of adrenaline generated from tight deadlines, all-nighters, and that last-minute request from your boss can absolutely be helpful. Unfortunately, when cortisol and adrenaline are in our system for a sustained period of time, they can actually be toxic to our system. The more we get the rush, the more we want it. The more we want it, the higher the likelihood that we put ourselves in situations that cause it.”
Are You a High-Tech Juggler?
There is plenty of disagreement over whether stress can be addictive. Excessive video game or Internet use is still not classified as an addiction by the bible of behavioral conditions used to diagnose patients and bill insurance, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM V. But our central nervous system does respond to physical and emotional stress in a way that creates a “natural high,” Concordia University neuroscientist and addiction specialist Jim Pfaus said in this piece published on Time.com: “By activating our arousal and attention system, stressors can also wake up the neural circuitry underlying wanting and craving — just like drugs do.”
There is less debate as to potential harm caused by chronic stress. Using brain scans on 75 healthy adults, U.K. researchers reported finding that high-tech jugglers – “media multitaskers” – had altered brains, although the study authors said further study was needed to make a causal link.
“People who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower gray matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who use just one device occasionally,” according to a University of Sussex news announcement of the study. It was published Sept. 24 in Plos One and the research by neurologists Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai concluded that, “high media multitasking is associated with smaller gray matter density in the anterior cingulated cortex.”
High Cost of Multiple Media Use
A Stanford University study also found that those of us frequently immersed in electronic information streams are crippled by them: such deluged people don’t pay attention, don’t switch from task to task, nor “control their memory,” as well as solo-taskers.
The Stanford researchers ran 100 students through three tests and found their heavy and multiple media use – text messaging while e-mailing while watching television while website-hopping while wading through homework – came at a steep cost.
“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings were published in the Aug. 24, 2009, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”
Author Grady concurs. During one of her son’s hospital stays, Grady reflected that she had adopted an ability to cope with a battery of intense situations, and that she ought to share her know-how.
Having earned a master’s degree in organizational communications, Grady had worked for several companies and went solo to launch her own business – a month before she became pregnant. First she had to be on four months’ bed rest. Almost immediately, problems arose with her baby that led to multiple diagnoses and aggressive, sometimes violent, daily outbursts. Her husband couldn’t handle it and left. Grady worked full-time, plus cared for her physically demanding child and fought insurance companies over his care. She was overwhelmed. But by paring down to one thing at a time, she was stunned that she did it markedly better and faster.
During her son’s November 2010 hospitalization, trapped by a New England blizzard, Grady said the mental light bulb flickered on and, “I realized that if I can manage this, I can do anything.”
So after weeks spent grounded during the treatment of her son, now 11, and beyond, she penned a book with instantly usable tools, called 52 Strategies for Life, Love & Work. Greg Darthoit, a senior manager at Dell, said of the book, “Spot-on tips, which can be used now. Invaluable!”
The Hardest Part
One of the hardest strategies for many people to adopt will be Grady’s admonition that we “don’t start the workday checking e-mail.” Some of us aren’t even out of bed before reading the overnight and morning’s batch of electronic correspondence: texts, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
“If we save 30 minutes a day being more productive – the time it takes for two or three interruptions – that is the equivalent of having an extra 22 days a year,” Grady says. “Turn off your new mail alert, turn off your technology, and do one thing at a time. It really starts right there.”
How can we stop multitasking and the potential health damage it is causing? Grady offers these 11 suggestions:
1. Identify your priorities:Look at the areas of your life that matter to you (possible areas include career, finance, family, health, relationships, social life, attitude and personal growth). Realize that some areas should take priority over others. Focus on one priority at a time.
2. Assess your priorities:Rank how you feel you are doing in each area that’s important to you, from 1 to 10 (poor to perfect). Look at where you can make slight changes. Your goal isn’t necessarily going from a 2 to 10. The goal is making “slight edge” changes, like going from a 2 to a 4.
3. Devote yourself to what matters:Identify your top three to five priorities and spend 80 percent of your time on them without apologizing for it. Schedule time for your priorities. If necessary, save money for them. Make sure you have emotional and physical energy for them.
4. Cut out the interruptions:To cut down stress and increase productivity, take steps to cut out the interruptions caused by multitasking, constantly checking e-mail and texts, and staying glued to social media. Each interruption can waste 10 to 15 minutes of your workday, including time to re-engage in the task you were doing before you were interrupted.
5. What do you get from the rush? Every behavior has a reason. As soon as you can identify why you are seeking this “high,” you can begin to find other ways to achieve the same goal without the unhealthy approach you might be using.
6. The same endorphin rush you get from a brisk walk or a swim can provide energy needed to power through a task.
7. Eat a frog. According to Mark Twain, if the first thing you do each morning is eat a frog, nothing else will seem that bad the rest of the day. Brian Tracy takes this a step further in his book Eat That Frog. If we do the task we dread the most and get it over with, we save the energy we would have spent procrastinating and worrying about the task. If you have two frogs, eat the ugly one first. Simply staring at the frog won’t make it go away.
8. Put the devices down. Research shows that switching back and forth between screens (TV, computer, phone, tablet, etc.) can change our brain.
9. Be where you are when you’re there. We increasingly hear more about the benefits of being mindful. This is simply the ability to be present in the moment without thinking about or doing anything else.
10. Make a master list. Many of us are tempted to multitask because a fleeting thought enters our mind, and we don’t want to forget it. If you write things down immediately, and keep that list in a single location, you won’t be as tempted to try to do two things at once. Try using an app called Wunderlist. It is a virtual “to do” list that automatically syncs with all of your devices, so you can access it wherever you are.
11. Breathe. According to Arianna Huffington in her book Thrive, there is a new term called e-mail apnea. This occurs when you unconsciously hold your breath while reading an e-mail.