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SMITH: Multitasking is making me stupid

“I fear the day that technology will surpass human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

— Albert Einstein

Quarantine has made me an idiot.

My days now include a lot of moving parts, and most of those parts involve screens. Life is more texts, DMs, calls, videoconferences, video uploads and social media posts than I ever anticipated.

A screen is the first thing I see each morning now. Even before we have coffee and meditate, we have to check David’s texts to see if there are enough patients at the hospital for him to see.

Once we know if he is going to work or not, I think through my day.

Is my next yoga class on Zoom or Facetime? Were those mindfulness videos supposed to be uploaded to YouTube or theOMchannel? Or was it a Facebook Live?

Have I called all of the people in my yoga teacher training program this week?

Did I pay the mortgage online?

Did I email Whitney a column for The Sun?

Did I schedule the #mondaymotivation email, post the newsletter, and market the video channel?

Is today a day I’m supposed to order take-out to support local restaurants? I must remember to post a picture and tag the restaurant.

Has Izzie turned in all her NTI assignments?

Which friend group am I Zooming with tonight?

Did my parents WhatsApp me from South America?

Is it already 5 p.m.? Someone turn on Andy, and for all things holy, bring me a charger because I’m in low power mode again.

I’m exhausted just writing it.

And much of this supposes I can even remember what day of the week it is, which most days I cannot.

We keep our loose daily schedule on a white board, which helps, but I still check my phone to see if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday.

I am busier in quarantine than I ever was in the before.

I am also more exhausted and dumber than I ever remember being. There’s so much information coming in, my brain is just missing some of it, leaving holes in my recall and retention.

It’s easy to blame screen burnout.  When we can’t physically interact, screens are the easiest way to stay connected.

I have noticed my eyes are more tired by the end of the day and my neck has a permanent crick from hunching over my devices too much.

Worse still is that every screen is just a poor substitute for physical contact.

Of the five love languages, my primary languages are quality time and physical touch. I show people that I care by giving them my attention, which usually involves touch. I hold hands with my friends, pat my students’ shoulders as I walk by during class, kiss and hug my husband and daughter when they leave the house. It’s how I intuitively tell people they are seen.

Seeing people through a screen is a painful reminder that I cannot touch them in real life.

But the biggest reason I am exhausted? I’ve been trying to convince myself that multitasking works.

It doesn’t. 

Multitasking gets things done, but not done well, and not done meaningfully.

While our bodies can do several tasks simultaneously, our brains are actually incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. They can be quite good at switching focus quickly, though.

A part of the brain called the Brodmann Area 10 (BA10) allows us to quickly toggle between tasks.

This week I made lunch while I was on a conference call, so my brain wasn’t actually talking, listening and cooking simultaneously, but toggling between the three at lightning speed.

The BA10 area lies in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain best accessed when we are intentionally doing one thing at a time. When we focus our attention on a single task, it allows the switching action to happen effortlessly.

Without that intentional awareness, one task usually hijacks the process and carries the brain off in a completely new direction.

For me, I got caught up in what I was saying on the call and put the milk in the pantry instead of the fridge. We often call this a brain far, and from a concentration standpoint, it really does stink — as did that milk when I discovered it the next day.

Since we cannot concentrate on two things at once, every time a text or alert pops up on our screen during our conference call, our brain shuts down for a little bit while we decide where we will place our attention. This accounts for some of the brain fog and forgetfulness many of us have been feeling.

This week, I have been trying to intentionally slow down and do one thing at a time. I am taking more screen breaks throughout the day, leaving my phone in the studio when I go back to the house for lunch or out for a hike. I reinstated my “no screens after sunset” rule I followed for years but have recently slacked off on.

I am already feeling more focused and grounded, hopeful and optimistic. More myself. And just a tiny bit less idiotic.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.