It seems that multi-tasking, which used to be characterized as a badge of honor, has recently been characterized as a badge of idiocy. This denigration of multi-tasking tends to be corroborated by the declaration that the brain is lousy at constantly switching between tasks and compelling it to do so will detract from performance.
I recently read an article on The Atlantic called The Zen of Adult Coloring Books that made me reconsider and reflect on the appropriate implementation of multi-tasking in my life. The author, Julie Beck, expounds on the merits of adult coloring books, mainly that it allows her to enter a pseudo-blissful meditative state. What I would like to emphasize in regards to multi-tasking from this article is the justification for why she derives the most benefit from these coloring books while watching television. She states the following:
"Why do I need to do two things at once? Why can’t I just sit quietly and enjoy a TV show? I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity. If the front of my mind is occupied by the show, and the back is focused on picking colors and staying in the lines, there’s not room for much else. It’s a sort of mindfulness that’s more like mind-fullness."
In essence, solely watching TV or solely coloring in her adult coloring book required such little effort and mental cognition that it left her inattentive enough that her mind started wandering towards negative thoughts. However, by combining the two, the mental cognition required of her facilitated what I would refer to as a quiescent flow state. I am reluctant to call her state a genuine flow state because genuine flow states tend to only occur when the activity is higher than average difficulty and the individual participating in the activity possesses higher than average skills. I think we are in unanimous agreement that neither watching TV nor coloring within lines fulfills the aforementioned criteria.
However, what we can deduce is that for lower cognitive order activities, multi-tasking can actually result in a more blissful present state experience.
I'll finish this post by culling some activities from my life to serve as examples:
1) Weight Training: Despite what you may think, weight lifting requires a considerable amount of cognitive effort when intensity is high. If you doubt this, I would invite you to perform a set of barbell back squats at 80% of your 1 rep max to failure while thinking about something extraneous to actually lifting the weight. It simply isn't going to happen without you either failing to lift the weight or suffering a catastrophic injury. In addition, this is the one activity in my life that puts me in a genuine flow state. However, that also presupposes that I am not multi-tasking during the hour I am lifting. With that said, it may be no surprise to you that the hour I set aside to lift weights is something I consider sacrosanct. I eschew phones (even between sets), conversations, and paying undue attention to those around me as they all detract from the flow experience. If you are familiar with the bliss from a flow state that I propose is unparalleled by any other experience, you will understand why I consider it a sacred time. This leads me to my next conclusion. When people tell me they podcast while lifting weights, I am inclined to believe that they are either not comprehending a single concept from the podcast or they are not lifting with any significant intensity.
2) Conversation: 1 on 1 conversations. This is another activity that I like to focus all my cognitive energy on as it can be the source of a heaping dose of dopamine when conversations delve into insightful topics. However, conversing shrewdly about more complex topics tends to require that the individuals refrain from multi-tasking.
3) Eating and podcasts: I find that the combination of eating and listening to podcasts an immensely harmonious experience. While both activities certainly are fulfilling on their own, the combination of the two requires just the right amount of attention where I fall into a quiescent flow state akin to how Beck feels when she combines adult coloring books with television. This may be unique to me but I can not make the same claim when combining eating with reading. I find that reading requires so much cognitive energy that it detracts from my present state enjoyment of the food I am eating. It is probably no coincidence that reading is an activity that, when performed by itself, is one of the most common activities associated with flow states.
In conclusion, next time you reflexively disparage or kneel at the altar of multi-tasking, vet it through a more nuanced filter that is unique to the potential activities and to you.
Here is the link to the article: The Zen of Adult Coloring Books