The menace of multi-tasking

Go With The Flow

22nd May 2015

Our heads are constantly bombarded with messages; our time constantly used to do two or three or four things at once. Heather Harris looks at what being busy does to the brain…

A policeman recently pulled over and knocked on my friend’s car windscreen. She was stationary at traffic lights but still she got a fixed penalty fine, despite her protestations that she was no risk to other road users…

“It’s ridiculous… all I was doing was checking my mobile phone,” was her plaintive cry. It’s worrying enough in itself, but even worse when greeted by sympathetic nods from her ‘there but for the grace of God’ friends. They simply could not understand that such an act while at the wheel is potentially dangerous, as well as against the law.

And after all, the alternative was unthinkable – imagine just sitting there and staring ahead. Do nothing? What a waste of time.
The same thought is presumably in the mind of dog walkers who continue chatting on their phones as their respective hounds leap all over me or chase down a passing deer. The alternative – listening to the birds sing as you walk – is apparently as unthinkable as sitting on the train with no reading matter or running on a treadmill without earphones and a large TV screen.

Whilst working abroad recently, a colleague was unable to do his marathon training outside due to the extreme heat, so was forced to run on a treadmill for three hours in silence.

“At first it was torture” he told me, “but I was actually amazed how listening to nothing but the sound of my body became incredibly therapeutic.” He laughed at my horror.

I am as guilty as the next person in my inability to relax. We have become a society where filling every second of every day has become the norm – or, to use the psychologists’ terms, we are a culture where ‘doing’ is now more important than ‘being’. Multi-tasking is venerated, but it is the menace of modern society.

“Ever since the industrial revolution when machines began to replace human labour in western society and technological advances created a greater sense of luxury in our lives, we began to look at sitting around doing nothing as idle, unproductive and inefficient,” according to Adrian Kowal, who writes on the subject of relaxation, and refers to himself as ‘a wilderness and Vision Quest guide’. And that’s half the problem: when it comes to the whole subject of taking downtime, the average Tom, Dick or Harriet immediately assumes it involves a lot of weird chanting by strange hippie types, weekends in the lotus position or – heaven forbid – Buddhist meditation.

The truth is that mental health experts are desperate to quell this myth. All they want us to do is – nothing.

As mental health charity Mind is keen to point out, “People often confuse relaxation with recreation. However, if hobbies or other activities – including exercise – become excessive, and make you feel even more driven or pressurised, they cease to be relaxing. If you are already exhausted in daily life, trying to relax by doing even more is not the answer. You need to stop and do nothing.”

How often do any of us just sit and take a few deep breaths? According to a study in Women’s Health magazine, 63 per cent of readers rarely prioritise daily downtime.

“The idea of getting some rest can, paradoxically, make women feel more restless. So they have a very difficult time stopping, relaxing, and getting centered, “said Melissa McCreery, founder of the fantastically named TooMuchOnHerPlate.com (strapline: ‘your life, your time, and your energy are too precious to spend struggling with overload, overwhelm, and overeating’).

Ironically, as both women’s and men’s lives become more hectic, the spa business has never been more lucrative. We have all become unable to force ourselves to sit down and smell the coffee. Instead we will happily pay vast sums to sit in a Jacuzzi, be wrapped in seaweed and wander around in an oversize robe and toweling flip flops whilst avoiding all caffeine.

That is, of course, if we can resist the 300 daily exercise classes which the majority of health resorts put on their timetable to pander to the increasingly energetic customer.

While women make up the majority of spa-goers, men are not resting on their laurels – or even their bottoms; instead they are booking up an increasing number of ‘Activity Holidays’: mountain biking up the Alps and abseiling down the other side, for example, or canoeing the Dordogne or a 362 hole golf weekend.

There’s also the option of involving the family in this hyperactive break. Travel brands such as Mark Warner or Sunsail are successfully charging a premium for entire families to run from one activity to another at breakneck speed before a ‘relaxing’ dinner eaten with total strangers. Personally I get worn out reading the brochure.

The problem is that we are unable to be bored. The actual concept of ‘boredom’ didn’t even enter the English language until the 17th century – before then everyone was far too busy avoiding the plague and entertaining themselves with a spot of cock fighting or bear baiting to feel guilty about sitting around in their timber cottages twiddling their thumbs.

Roll forward a few centuries and our thumbs are far too busy texting to twiddle. Even if we do get to lie on a beach, witness the amount of tablets and smartphones in constant use.

“Before smartphones and social media, you could only compare yourself to those around you,” says communications expert, Larissa Faw. “Now you can see what the entire world is doing in real time, making you constantly feel you should be doing more.”

Increasingly we are being driven by our desperation to keep as busy as everyone else seems to be, rather than listen to our own biological clock. Because nature has very handily given us the perfect measure of how we should relax.

Therapist Mark Tyrrell, author of How to Relax – The Low Down On Winding Down, explains: “Every 90 minutes or so, it's natural for the dominance in brain function to switch from left hemisphere to right hemisphere focus. This happens so we can update new information, housekeep the body and recoup lost energy and focus. We experience this as zoning out or just switching off for a few minutes.”

These shifts are referred to medically as ‘ultradian rhythms’ and in the modern world we are increasingly fighting against them, which results in stress hormones kicking in.

And then what do we do? Sit down with a good book, have a nap, lie and listen to music? No, sadly. Statistics reveal that more and more of us, and middle aged women in particular, are reaching for the wine bottle in a desperate effort to relax. Using chemicals as an artificial aid to relaxation has been proved time and time again to be just a temporary measure and quickly the cycle of stress continues.

If only we could all go back to the era of BBC TV’s period drama, Downton Abbey. Catching up with an old episode the other evening my 18 year-old daughter observed, “What a boring life. What do those women do all day?”

At which point Lady Mary announced, “I’m going upstairs to change my hat and have a lie down before dinner…” Clearly a woman who does an excellent job of listening to her natural ultradian rhythms. And far healthier she is for it.

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