It's 9:00 p.m. You have an essay and problem set due at midnight and a test tomorrow. You would rather be doing anything else, like watching some anime or listening to an epic fantasy like the Stormlight Archives. Then it hits you.
Why not do all of it at the same time!?
With multitasking you can kill two stones with one bird. You can do your essay, problem set, study for your test, and listen to Lopen's next big mess up (comment if you understand that reference) all at the same time!
Another day, you’re sitting in a lecture hall listening to your Philosophy professor drone on about Kant. You start to drift off and begin texting your friends. Suddenly you’re in email. How did you get here? Before you know it, you’re on Amazon looking for your next sci-fi read.
We are living in an era where distractions are more prevalent than ever before. The internet, video games, and unfairly interesting Kurzgesagt science videos are everywhere. Instead of accepting a select few activities and enjoying them, many students decide that doing everything at once is the solution.
I'm not the only one who used to think this way. A study done by Health Professor Lydia Burak and colleagues (2012) found that 50% or more of North Eastern American University students in their study did multitasking of some sort while listening to a University lecture.
And as technology only becomes more widespread this number is likely to just get higher without intervention. Schoolwork sometimes doesn't grab our interest like our friends, club activities, and self-learning outside of school. I believed multitasking was the answer. I used to play Fortnite while “studying” for my Geometry test on the side.
But after reading more into what makes life enjoyable from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's books Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and Finding Flow, as well as many others, I realized there is a hidden consequence of multitasking.
Multitasking, as fast as we can kill stones with it, hurts our ability to enjoy life.
Multitasking inhibits our focusing muscle, which increases our tendency to mind wander and makes it harder to focus attention, ultimately reducing our ability to enter the flow state and have optimal experiences.
To understand why, I will first explain how our focus is like a muscle, the science of mind wandering, and finally, the nuances of the flow state. Then I will explain what you can do to bring enjoyment back into your life.
💪How Multitasking Hurts Your Focusing Muscle
Firstly, lets define multitasking. When I refer to multitasking, I'm specifically talking about doing two medium to high cognitive tasks simultaneously. So cleaning the dishes while listening to Samwise say Potatoes on repeat doesn't count. But doing three school-related things while listening to Lopen in the Stormlight Archives be an idiot does.
Your ability to focus works like a muscle. When you repeatedly focus for long periods of time, you build your focus ability. Multitasking over time, degrades your focusing muscle. This is because the brain can't multitask. While multitasking, the brain intermittently switches between tasks at super fast intervals. This creates the feeling of doing two things at once and makes the multitasker feel like a productivity god.
But the feeling is a lie because, in the process, the multitasker's poor focusing muscle atrophies like our love for Sauron after he betrays Gandalf. Our reduced focusing muscle, in turn, increases our tendency to mind wander. Think about what mind wandering is; it's wandering away from the activity at hand because of an inability to focus attention. So long term multitasking increases mind wandering. Let's discuss why this hurts enjoyment in the next section.
🤯Why Mind Wandering Hurts Enjoyment
Everyone has experienced moments during the day when their mind drifts off to activities other than the one at hand. One moment you're writing an essay for school, and the next, you're contemplating your plans for world domination, okay maybe the specific thought is just me.
This mind wandering seems harmless enough, but according to Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010), mind wandering can be incredibly damaging to our enjoyment of life. Through the use of a smart phone technology, Killingsworth and Gilbert were able to sample 2250 adults through experience sampling methods.
Participants installed an app on their phones that randomly pinged them throughout their days. When pinged, participants answered how they were feeling, what they were doing, and if they were thinking about something else than what they were currently doing. There were three illuminating findings.
Mind Wandering Happens During Any Activity
The first major finding was the nature of people's activities only had a modest impact on if their minds wandered. People's mind wandered in any activity, whether they were answering emails, running, or watching Shrek 3.
Mind Wandering Outside An Intended Activity is Unenjoyable
The second major finding was, on average mind wandering outside of an intended activity is unenjoyable. No matter the activity, if people reported they were thinking about something else while doing it, they didn't find it as enjoyable as if they invested their attention in the intended activity.
This explains why it almost never feels good to doomscroll through Tik Tok or go down a YouTube rabbit hole when you intend to be doing something else with your time. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy my fair share of Vigo Mortenson bucket-kicking shots on replay every now and then.
Attention Determines Enjoyment of an Activity More Than The Activity
The third major finding adds to this idea: your attention to an activity determines your enjoyment of the activity more than the activity itself. In other words, the activity matters less in your enjoyment of it in comparison to where you hone your attention while doing it. In effect, you could feasibly enjoy your Organic Chemistry homework as long as you were fully attending to it.
👀You Are What You Attend To
These two things, our focusing muscle and the implications of the mind wandering study illuminate a profound fact: you are what you attend to. Take two people and put them in the same situation. They will attend to different things and therefore literally perceive different things.
At any given moment we are being bombarded with vastly more sensory information than we could possibly attend to. Homework assignments, inspiring books like Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte, and peanut butter; the most difficult thing to resist of all.
It's up to our conscious and subconscious attention to determine what we attend to and therefore allow into consciousness. So it's not an overstatement to say we are what we attend to. The self shapes what we attend to, but what we attend to shapes the self. It's a circular relationship.
This brings us back to multitasking. Taking the two insights from before, it becomes clear multitasking hurts your ability to hone attention. In effect, multitaskers are more vulnerable to the informational chaos of the moment, attending to small pieces of negative information and giving it unruly amounts of space in consciousness, hindering their enjoyment of life.
This outcome leads to the third and final nail in the coffin for the problems with multitasking: it hurts your ability to enter the flow state.
🌊The Flow State
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the Flow state is when all other worldly matters seem to drift away and we become fully immersed in the present activity. In other words, there is order in consciousness.
During flow the person loses self consciousness but not consciousness of the self. And it's for this reason that the flow state creates Optimal experiences, experiences that are incredibly enjoyable; Attention is so focused on an intended activity that there is no room in consciousness for anxious thoughts or worries about the future. Worries like when is that essay due? When is the next pre-lim? And how long until book 5 of The Stormlight Archives comes out?
And after a flow experience, the Self grows by becoming more integrated, differentiated, or both. Think of a writer, climber, or chess player who exits an hour of flow more skillful in their respective activities. This is what differentiates flow from the pleasure you get in fulfilling simple biological or social needs like eating food, having sex, or getting your daily dose of Stormlight Archives reading; If you can't tell, I like the Stormlight Archives.
Enjoyment is pleasure's cooler older brother. It comes only when information coming into consciousness not only succeeds in some prior expectation but goes beyond what we are programmed to do, achieving something unexpected. This is where the issues of multitasking come into play. They inhibit our ability to achieve the prerequisites to flow.
There are seven elements to entering flow which I distill in the Acronym ACTIONS. I called it this because if you fulfill all of the seven elements of it, you can take any action with confidence it can become a flow experience.
Attend (Attend only to information which matters)
Clarify (Create clear completable goals and rules)
Tao (Stay in the [[Goldilocks zone]])
Iterate (Receive unambiguous feedback)
Operate (Sense of control over actions)
Non-attachment with time (Detachment from time)
Self-goal (Foster an [[Autotelic personality]])
While it's possible to get into the flow state without all seven of these, it's significantly more difficult. The main element multitasking inhibits is our ability to attend to what we are doing, one of the essential elements. In effect, chronic multitaskers find it hard to downright impossible to enter flow and have optimal experiences. Instead, they are perpetually conscious of the self, and prone to the negative informational chaos of the moment.
😁How To Bring Enjoyment Back Into Your Life
If you are a multitasker or you know a multitasker who is dealing with these issues, you should give up... There is absolutely nothing you can do to help yourself. I'm joking. Luckily there are quite a few things you can do to bring optimal experiences back into your day. First and most obviously, stop your rate of multitasking, doing two or more high cognitive tasks at the same time.
Then you need to learn how to come in control of your consciousness. As mentioned before, the information we allow into consciousness forms the contents and quality of our life because The self shapes what we attend to, but what we attend to shapes the self. Luckily, there's only one word you need to ingrain to the depths of your being in order to control consciousness: Koonklestoomp.
I think it sounds funny.
The word you need to ingrain is awareness. Awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness. I'm going to say it one more time because it's essential: awareness. Only when you are aware of something can you make the conscious steps to change it. With awareness you can be a witness to the universal human tendency for bullshaggery. Let's quickly discuss three ways you can build your ability of awareness and why they will help you have more optimal experiences.
🏋️Build Back Your Focusing Muscle
As discussed earlier multitasking destroys your focusing muscle. Chronic multitaskers can barely pay attention to one task for more than five minutes at a time. So one part of building back your ability to have optimal experiences is developing your focusing muscle.
The better your focusing muscle, generally the better your awareness. This is because awareness is hard. You can’t just be aware for a couple hours during the day. That’s how you find yourself eating 3 Tony Chocolonely at 3:00 a.m. and watching anime until your next lecture class. The goal is to be aware all the time. This means you have to build your focusing muscle by practicing focusing on one activity for long periods of time.
This could be anything:
- Talking to a friend
- Reading a book
- Going on a run
- Performing ritual sacrifice
As long as you give the activity your full focus for the entire duration with no distractions--especially your phone--you will build your focusing muscle over time. It won't be easy. When I started reading again, I could only read for upwards of 15 minutes at a time. It took months and months before I could begin to read books for sometimes an hour and a half straight. But when I could was so happy because then I could finally read the Communist Manifesto in one reading session, I have no prouder achievement.
🧘Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Secondly, to build your awareness, you need to learn how to mindfully mind wander. Dang that's a mouthful. Practicing Mindfulness through Meditation is one of the best ways you can do this.
The biggest benefit of mindfulness practices is awareness as you begin to develop an understanding of your thoughts and emotions. This awareness lets you realize when your mind is wandering outside of your intended activity.
Another profound benefit of becoming more aware is you learn your thoughts and emotions are not you. Rather you are the experiencer behind everything.
This was comforting when I first learned it because most of the conversations in my head for work are like this:
Scenario: Aidan doesn't do homework assignment because he would rather read Atomic Habits.
Aidan's Thoughts: You waste of oxygen.
Aidan: Technically, I recycle the oxygen into CO2 for plants, so it's not a waste.
Aidan's Thoughts: What will your friends and family say when they learn of this? They will disown you.
Aidan: I don't think they care.
Aidan's Thoughts: No peanut butter for you.
Understanding these thoughts were not me was incredibly helpful for my mental health
The act of ingraining this idea as a central tenet for your life is what I call spirituality. And practicing spirituality is the art of persistently recentering yourself as the experiencer behind your thoughts and emotions. Imagine a state in which you always attend to only the information most important to the activity at hand. You are always centered. You are always having optimal experiences. It just takes awareness.
So how do you begin with meditation? There are tons and tons of guides out there, but the way I started and the way I recommend is through taking the basic courses on Headspaces meditation program. Headspace is a fantastic meditation app with tons of instructors who take you through guided meditations. It costs only $14 a month and helped me ingrain the meditation practice I still have to this day.
⚓The Airship, Pilot, and Antifrabrian
Lastly, to reach a state of persistently centered awareness and thus purposeful attention, you need to know what’s important to attend to in the first place. As stated before it's very difficult to enter the flow state if you can't become fully present. And It's not possible to be present unless you know what you should be attending to at any given time. To know what you should be attending to in the moment there must be times where you reflect on the past and look to the future, so you can clarify your goals, tasks, and values.
In other words, you need to know what mode of being you should be in.
I like to use the analogy of living life as the Airship, Pilot, and Antifabrian, first off because they reference the Stormlight Archives and secondly because I have always wanted to be a flying ship.
While living life as the Airship, you simply run through the tasks and calendar items given to you by the Pilot. You can be fully present because you are acting out what was pre-ordained by your past self acting as the Pilot. Your pilot defined clear goals, tasks, and values to live by. Therefore you don't have to constantly question if what you are attending to is right.
While a Pilot, you create or alter directions for your Airship mode to follow. You define goals, tasks, and values to work towards in the next few weeks, months, and even years. I do this process through my daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews. During these times I reflect on the past. How did I show up to my goals, tasks, and values. And then I iterate for the future. You can see more about how I do this in my video, Creating my Best Average Day With Obsidian Periodic Notes.
Finally, as an Antifabrian, you tinker with the systems you are using to run your life. Your task list, calendar, and all the other systems you have in your life like your knowledge management, task management, morning routine, etc. This can take the form of ticking off things on your to do list, reorganizing a digital notes app, or something else.
Typically I'm a Airship 85% of the day, a Pilot 10% of the day, and an Antifabrian 5% of the day. By living in modes, I don’t have to question what to attend to at any given moment because I have already chosen what is important. I can be fully present.
Overcoming Your Multitasking Identity
If you follow those three steps, you will find yourself able to enjoy life again. When I broke out of my multitasking shell it felt amazing. I found myself enjoying the activities in my life much more than before, simply because I was giving them the space in consciousness they deserved. But it wasn’t easy.
In the process, you might feel less productive for a few weeks or months. This is totally normal. You stopped making yourself feel productive by doing lots at once and started making real moves on what matters to you. I invite you to share in the comments how your journey goes. What things did you struggle with the most?
Be sure to check out my video on How to Gamify Your Life to Enter Flow More Consistently Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I discuss more in depth how we can more consistently enter the flow state through exploring the industry which fosters flow most powerfully: the game industry.