S2E28 Multi-tasking

We live in a busy go, go, go world, thus most of us like to believe that we are experts in multi-tasking. But believe it or not, the brain is actually incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time! In this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin bust the multi-tasking myth by discussing the DBT skill of “one mindfully,” research on attention “switching,” and their own challenges with multi-tasking.  Living in this high paced world, you wont want to miss this episode on how to slow down and pay attention.




Pete: Well, we are so back after the break, and I don't know, if anyone ever watched our YouTube channel, you can see that I probably do multitask, or at least I try to,


Nikki: And I do not.


Pete: Because you're better than me at something else, again.


Nikki: I don’t know I would say better, I just don't like it. 


Pete: No, you’re better.


Nikki: And I'm lazy. I'm just lazy.


Pete: You're not lazy. 


Nikki: Well, this is just a side note joke. Pete and I make this joke all the time. We would say on the outside, Pete seems, he's a practitioner, very Zen, but on the inside, he's like...


Pete: Has four jobs.


Nikki: Yes, four jobs, and multitasking. Me on the outside, a lot of people will see me as like very high energy or whatever. And I'm like on the inside, I'm like, ‘yeah, just, I just like want to sit'.


Pete: It is so funny. I love that paradox of you and I. 


Nikki: Yes, I do too. 


Pete: Well, we're going to talk about multitasking today because this is something that, well, I don't… if I was prepared, Hey producers, where are you with this? But I remember reading a study from Harvard that the brain actually can't multitask…


Nikki: You are just reading my mind. 


Pete: For real?


Nikki: Yes, I don't remember where the study came from, but I learned it in grad school. And I share that fact with patients that illusion…


Pete: We have to make sure that this is a fact though, are we like making this up?


Nikki: No, because I don't… I'm saying, I don't know what the study is, but I did, I learned that because I share that all the time with people. It's just an illusion, we don't actually multitask what we're actually doing… and look to be fair, because [inaudible 1:50] argue to me like, ‘well, I can listen to this podcast while I go on a run'. And I'm like, okay, fair, you're doing two behaviors at the same time. But I think attentionally what happens, it's really the mind going back and forth between what's it paying attention to. So if you're going on a run while listening to our podcast, you're either more focused on the podcast or you're most focused on the run or you're jumping back and forth between the two. You can't hold the tension on two things at the same time.


Pete: Right, and then like if you're on the elliptical or running, you're kind of a hamster on the wheels. So you don't have to think too much about it unless you're like hiking or running in like… and in that case, you're not really hearing what you and I are saying, because you're also making sure you don't fall and bust your head. 


Nikki: Exactly, and so this is where it weaves in, obviously with mindfulness. Like mindfulness is helping us see, like pay attention to just one thing at a time because you know, the multitasking illusion, which I will say, and I'm curious to hear what listeners that are not in the United States think, but I feel like this is a very American cultural,


Pete: Oh, that's so interesting probably. 


Nikki: Cause we're a culture that, we get very attached to the value of productivity. 


Pete: Well, what you just talked about, I love the way you… see you're so good, the way you put that. Well, you think you're doing two behaviors at the same time, but you're running and you're listening. And so that is switching. 


Nikki: And another behavior,


Pete: I just looked this up, another behavior. So it was Rogers and Monsell, they in the mid-nineties. So that could have been what we were learning, but they found that there's the cost of switching. And so that basically one attributable to the time taken to adjust the mental control settings. So you're having to switch between tasks that you're not actually doing it. And they studied two or four trials of two tasks at the same time. And you weren't able to be focused on one task at a time, you could only be focused on one task at a time.


Nikki: And was it, and I'm curious if it was in the study or not. Did it say what the outcome of like effectiveness of the behavior is? Because I think that's also part of the myth I try to explain to people is that people think, ‘no, I can do, not only do more than multiple things at once, I can do them really well.’ And I tell them is no, when you try to do multiple things at once, the effectiveness or efficiency suffers, because you're just switching.


Pete: You're just smart because you're right. The way they study


Nikki: I think I just remember,


Pete: Well, because you're smart, but there was, they looked at the time, both the time to switch and the time that you would focus on that task. And so I guess obviously what you're saying is, there'd be less time on one task than the other, and probably more time to switch between which means you're not being efficient.


Nikki: Yes, exactly. So it's like when you're mindfully doing one thing at a time, while there's a story, again, I'm going to use through the lens of American culture here, since you and I are living in United States and American citizens. There's a belief or a story that like, ‘oh, I'm doing everything really well'. It's like no, one mindfully at a time, is even though you're letting go of other tasks holistically, you're going to be more effective because you're putting in mindful, consistent attention and effort into one thing, complete that to its end, and then you can go to the next thing. So if you're constantly doing lots of things at once, again, it's just noise, that busy-ness is just an illusion that you're getting a lot of stuff done.


Pete: Right, it's an illusion, so I'm going to read a definition here. So we've already said it. So sometimes we'll break it down. So the multitasking is like two or more tasks simultaneously switching back and forth, that's actually the definition. Or performing a number of tasks in rapid succession. And what we find here, multitasking takes a serious toll on productivity. Our brains lack the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time and moments where we think we're multitasking, we're likely to switching quickly from task to task. So this is exactly what you and I've just been saying, just wanted to break that down quicker. So you think you're doing things simultaneously, you're not,


Nikki: You're not. Yeah, and it adds to this, but it's like, it adds to the story that a lot of us really like, like I do things right, I do things, I get things done.


Pete: You sure do.


Nikki: Yeah. I do things, and it's, of course I'm thinking about the saying, and I think we said it on this podcast or where it's like, we're human beings, not human doings. 


Pete: Right, oh I like that.


Nikki: And again, it,


Pete: Where did you get that from?


Nikki: I don't know,


Pete: that sounds like our friend…


Nikki: It's a Buddha, it's like a Buddhist thing,


Pete: Well it is, but it sounds like an act thing, that sounds like I'm Dr. Michael Feminella would have said something like that.


Nikki: Hey Mike, if you're out there listening.


Pete: But I remember he would always say that, like the doing,


Nikki: Yeah, the doing, yes. I don't remember who taught it to me, but it's so resonated with me. And it's like, we again, especially in United States, we love to be human doings and it's not, and to be clear, it doesn't mean we shouldn't do stuff. It's just that it's an illusion that the more we do the better, and it's like, the research, as Pete's talking about actually says otherwise.


Pete: Well, I think you're right. That would definitely be more Western. I would agree with that, that's more American,


Nikki: And more American. Well, both I'm sure, but more… cause if you compare to, in Europe, like I studied abroad in Madrid in Spain, which I loved and…


Pete: Years ago,


Nikki: Years ago, but I loved it. And just one big sort of obvious cultural differences, literally every day, this [inaudible 7:42] come from. The stores, close, all the stores closed at two o'clock. So you go home for like three hours, you eat your big lunch, which is the main, big meal of the day there. And then they reopened and in the United States, can you imagine what people would say? “But you can't go return that sweater at the gap, I don't understand!’ 


Pete: “That's my lunch break”. 


Nikki: “That's my lunch break”. Well, so Pete, for you, I'm wondering, because like you said, you do like to buy into that illusion sometimes, even on the podcast, but,


Pete: Yes. 


Nikki: Yes. So I don't know, what's your personal experience then with attempting to multi-task?


Pete: It's exhausting.


Nikki: It's exhausting, okay, yeah. That's what it looks like, yeah. Maybe can you tell people more about that?


Pete: And at this point now I do it mindfully. So like when I'm doing it, I'm aware…


Nikki: You're aware that you're doing it.


Pete: Yeah, so like, I think, and I'm doing it non-judgmentally and I'm slowly bringing it back to trying to get one mindful. Isn't that the DBT, one mindfulness?


Nikki: Yeah, that’s the DBT term, yeah, one mindful…


Pete: Why don't you give us that?


Nikki: It's just, in dialectical behavior therapy, has done a nice job of often pulling apart the different aspects of mindfulness. And one of them is a definition that they refer to as one mindfully, which is just do one thing at a time. So say like, when you're walking, walk, when you're eating, eat, when you're watching TV, watch TV. Talking on the phone, talk on the phone. But we have a hard time doing that, especially, I can't believe we haven't said this yet, in our era with all of our devices.


Pete: Those devices, 


Nikki: Those devices


Pete: So you don't like the brain, I don't like the devices. I'm just kidding, I know you love the brain.


Nikki: I love the brain, but I also don't like the devices. No, I love the brain. I don't like the story about the brain that the brain is like this all powerful, omnipotent Oregon.


Pete: We don’t even use it.


Nikki: Yeah. I mean, 


Pete: What was that movie, Lucy?


Nikki: Oh yeah, Lucy. Yeah. That's another episode…I don't know anything about that. But yes, the devices it's like, think of how many people, I would do this, it's like, you've got the computer open, you've got the phone open, you're watching television, you're talking to…


Pete: It's terrible,


Nikki: Like your friend or your partner or whatever, it doesn't… like it's exhausting. So like… cause I think most people can relate to this. Can you just share a little bit more about for you like the impact, if you're willing.


Pete: Well it makes me feel stressed. It makes me feel less well, I'm less connected in that, in those moments. So like, I'm thinking about just yesterday, I've got a whole new team of providers working with me and new postdocs and all that. And so everyone's getting used to the system getting used to me as part of the system, et cetera, I'm all over the place. Like quite literally, like I don't stay in one building anymore. Like my job was always that I had multiple locations to go to, but now it's like, even in one location, I'm going to like seven or eight different locations. 


Nikki: So tiring, so hard.


Pete: But you come back and there's an email from your, from somebody that you have to respond to, and there's a text message and, so I think that that speaks to those devices because the devices keep us constantly connected and it's both good and bad. It allows me to be able to do work in places where like, if I'm on the beach or whatever. But it also then doesn't allow me to like disconnect and enjoy the waves.


Nikki: Right. Well, and so I…you're going to laugh when I say this, I would let go of the judgment of good or bad if they can both work and not work. I would say that example of ‘it allows me to work on the beach', like, is that workable? I feel like that's part of the story, of like, we need to be human doings. Like we've got to do all the time.


Pete: Right. 


Nikki: And do we? 


Pete: And just leave your phone at home and go to the beach. That's what I ultimately practice, what I'm trying to do, I'll share with you what I'm trying to do. So over the summer, one of the things I did was every month, for one week per month, I didn't schedule appointments. 


Nikki: Awesome. 


Pete: Still work, but I didn't schedule appointments. I'm trying to carry that into,


Nikki: Into the fall?


Pete: Yeah, it made a difference.


Nikki: It does make a difference, because it's like, what I am thinking about as you're talking about this is, multitasking… it's funny, obviously, hopefully this message is coming through, obviously Pete [inaudible 12:13] we're definitely communicating to you guys, like we're not fans, this is actually not a really effective mode. And I want to be clear, we're not against being productive. Productivity is a value, like it is useful, we do need to get things done. Though, multitasking takes away space. It's like filled with noise. Like I often have conversations with patients about busy-ness behavior. And I certainly have been guilty of that in my life. And I've really worked on letting go of the busy-ness, like filling up all the space with doing, which is like a sibling of multitasking, I would say. So maybe I'm not somebody that does a lot of multitasking, but I have historically done a lot of busy-ness behavior. 


Pete: Well, you're a doer.


Nikki: I'm a doer, right. And I've worked and continue to work on, as Pete’s talking about, doing less. And I think what's just fascinating. And I think this is so hard for people to believe when they're really practice at multitasking or busy-ness is that, the space isn't going to get in the way of you getting things done. Because I think that's the fear, like I think the fear is if I let go of multitasking, if I let go of busy-ness, if we even go to devices, like if I don't, if I put an away message on my email, I'm going to miss something important and something bad will happen. And…you know what I mean? That kind of thing. 


Pete: I don't like those away messages on email.


Nikki: Oh, I do, because I'm like, ‘don't contact', so I’m like…


Pete: Yeah, but you'll get back when you get back. I mean, that also is a societal expectation of like, if you don't get back,


Nikki: I mean that's fair. I more think of it as like a courtesy of like, in terms of my respect, I wouldn't want someone to think I'm not responding to their email. I want them to know I'm away, 


Pete: I got you,


Nikki: But I hear you're saying. But you know what I mean about like the… 


Pete: Is that a reinforcement?


Nikki: What, which part?


Pete: That we reinforce that everyone expects the response within a certain amount of time?


Nikki: It is, yeah, no, it is. I guess you and I just have a different opinion of it. I think it's like a respectful, I think it's respectful.


Pete: Yeah, no, I think it's respectful too. But by the way, it's disrespectful when I have to keep getting those, like every time you're in an email chain and then I keep getting the 'I'm away', ‘I'm away'.


Nikki: Oh yeah. 


Pete: And I have to delete it.


Nikki: Well, that's where you can say I slept on mine, only to people that are in my, like in my address book. So it won't send it to a list or.


Pete: Oh, interesting. Okay. 


Nikki: Yeah. That's awesome. 


Pete: Anyway, sorry.


Nikki: Yeah. So, but I think, but you know what I'm saying about this,


Pete: Yes,


Nikki:  This fear that people have if they make the space, if they let go of multitasking, if they let go of busy-ness that basically says something bad will happen.


Pete: Well, that's interesting that you say that because I was just reading about the brain, which you love. And so what researched shows us is that we're four, actually takes us four times longer to complete a task when we're multitasking.


Nikki: Makes total sense.


Pete: I know it would, to you, I knew you'd like that. It also indicates that you're 40% less productive when you're multitasking. And then this piece, I thought you would really like it, because of what you're just saying. There's like a pleasure seeking principle in there, where you're trying to almost people please. So that sometimes the multitasking creates dopamine, because you feel, isn't that interesting.


Nikki: Yeah. Well, and I was actually even thinking it's even people pleasing yourself because it goes into that story of like, ‘what a good job I'm doing. Look how on top of things I am'…


Pete: Well the dopamine is really there. 


Nikki: Yeah, really there. Well, so Pete, I think we definitely can't end this episode without giving folks some suggestions about how to let go of multitasking or busy-ness a little bit.


Pete: Who should say it?


Nikki: I think you, 


Pete: All roads lead to mindfulness,


Nikki: Oh, that. How was that, that I was not reading your mind at that moment. I don't know.


Pete: Wait, listeners it's happened. You did not read my mind once. 


Nikki: I did not read, I did not read your mind.


Pete: This may have been the first time. How dare you though? That was like,


Nikki: I’m sorry, it’s because I’m tired.


Pete: I loved that. That was like a steak, says the vegetarian


Nikki: Well, but to a non-vegetarian I would [inaudible 16:23] I think that's, look see, I'm getting back from summer. Just the grease in the wheels here. Yeah, but all roads lead to mindfulness. Yeah, please.


Pete: Yeah. So other things are just, I mean, I think there's research that shows like work for like 45 minutes and take a five minute break, standing desk posture, I guess trying to have like some devices away. So like, if you're on your computer typing a paper, maybe put your phones in the other room, so there are behavioral strategies to try and work for being more focused, attentional practices. A lot of the research you look at with multitasking focuses on attention. And so where's your attention efforts going. And so trying to really put your efforts towards the one thing that you are doing. So practice in one mindfulness, from DBT.


Nikki: Or an actual mindfulness practice, like a sitting practice will… we've mentioned this before…


Pete: Didn't we say that? All roads lead to mindfulness.


Nikki: Oh, that, we did. That's true, but I think it's important to say like the actual sitting practice will, in [inaudible 17:26] another Western scientific data point here, you will grow neurons in the frontal lobe, that's one of the areas we grow neurons, which helps you pay attention.


Pete: Well, before, so as we end, let's throw that in too. That's all the executive functioning. So that's why the frontal lobe is, and that's a big piece of multitasking, is being to train your frontal lobe for that executive functioning capacity.


Nikki: Yes. And I think I want to just reinforce what Pete was saying about some of the behavioral strategies. It sounds simple, turning this stuff off is actually really important. So like this is, we're still in, this is September, 2021 when we're recording this. So we're still in the pandemic. So Pete and I do a lot of telehealth. And that's one thing, for example, people on their computers, I have to tell people a lot of times, I want you to turn off all the notifications. Like we're just in therapy, like turn off your iMessage, turn off your email, close all the windows, because it's going to help you to focus. So this can be said of anything. It's like, if you just basically get rid of those other things, it's going to, create an environment that's going to help your brain be better able to just do one thing. But I think we also got to say, you got to go into it knowing you might feel scared that something might happen…


Pete: And you will miss something


Nikki: Well, yeah. And it's like, that's okay. So are you willing to feel uncomfortable and do one thing at a time? And it's like a little behavioral experiment. See what happens, see if your experience matches what the research Pete and I shared today.


Pete: You're such a good little researcher over there.


Nikki: I am not, you're the…


Pete: Well you are…


Nikki: I'm a great consumer of research.


Pete: You’re a consumer of research and you apply it in your clinical setting. Well, this was great. Thank you, Nikki. So I'm going to say for all those Americans out there, cause this is likely more of an American thing. When you think you're multitasking, look at it, watch it, do it non-judgmentally, because it's taking you four times longer and you are 40% less productive.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Pete Economou.


Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin be present, be brave.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes.