If you work at a computer you are probably spending a good portion of your day reading. If we’re honest, quite a bit of that reading is done through the infamous multitasking. We’re all guilty of it. Just as I am writing this article, I see my Facebook messenger flashing in an open tab and I am having a difficult time resisting the urge to check it. When we work at a computer, we often move into multitasking mode: switching between writing emails, tweeting photos from lunch, instant messaging, texting and working, all in the same few minutes. We are probably all aware that multitasking makes us less efficient, but how does this affect our levels of calm, stress, and anxiety?
We are not designed to continually switch from one task to another, at least to the degree that most of us are doing so. For that reason, our brains are working in overdrive. When the demands of our attention exceed our ability to perform, stress is a likely result.
“Anytime you’re trying to multitask, you have less attention available to store memories…” -David Meyer, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.
Not only that, but multitasking negatively affects our short-term memory. “Anytime you’re trying to multitask, you have less attention available to store memories,” says David Meyer, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. Consider the last time you were talking on the phone while trying to respond to an email. How much of that conversation were you able to retain? More than likely, not near as much as if you were giving your full attention. The idea of having to repeat a task I’ve already (half) completed since I wasn’t giving it my full attention only adds to the list of things I have to do. That, in and of itself, makes me a little stressed, not to mention irritated.
This isn’t exactly new news, however, we are always curious about how different activities affect our breathing patterns, as breathing patterns reveal insight into our state of mind and level of focus. We saw in an earlier Spire IRL post that working at a computer changes breathing patterns. This time we wanted to compare it directly to two calming, focused activities — reading a book and meditating.
To conduct this case study, we had two Spire team members wear a Spire and read for 20 minutes, do their work for 20 minutes, and then meditate for 20 minutes. The following graphs show 2 minutes from the working and reading activities:
Look at the difference between reading a book and working at a computer! Working at a computer shows that breathing is more erratic and there is even a short ‘breath hold’. The reading task had a big sigh in the middle but overall, slower breathing and longer pauses between the breaths. Breath holding can be attributed to a number of factors including stress, anticipation, and tension . As shown in these graphs, the multitasking nature of computer work can lead to stress and anxiety, versus focused work, such as reading, where your body and brain are actually more calm.
Let’s compare this with breathing patterns during a simple meditation.
Each breath is even more smooth and slow than both working and reading. One thing that’s fascinating, however, is that even though the users were very relaxed and meditating, each breath is unique! Or, as we like to say at Spire: each breath is a snowflake. 🙂 This makes sense because our state of mind is also always evolving and changing. The slow, smooth breathing patterns indicate that this individual has a calm and relaxed state of mind.
“Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect.”
When we read a book or meditate, we provide our minds and bodies with the space and time for reflection and a chance to decompress. That same space and time isn’t often available to us when we are engaged in multi-tasking behavior at work. “Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect.” This is why taking the time to breathe and refocus is so important. It’s like food to our brains.
The Spire team members did a second meditation, without any guidance or music. Let’s see what happened:
This time we see an even more dramatic difference. The breaths are even more dramatically slower, smoother, and more consistent. Again, this slower, smoother breathing indicates a calm or focused state of mind.
Breathe Into Focus and Productivity
As we’ve seen in our experiment above, the activities you are performing have an affect on your breathing and state of mind. Now, let’s turn that around and take control by using your breath to affect how you perform at a particular activity.
So what can we do with this information? How can we become more aware of this behavior so our productivity, efficiency, and sanity don’t suffer? Here’s some things you can start doing today to combat that oh-so-tempting multitasking monster inside us all:
1. Organize: Organize your work life to minimize the distractions. If you need focused time and energy, turn your email notifications and instant messages off for that time. Put your phone on silent (not just vibrate). Close distracting tabs. Bookmark articles and other items you’d like to return to later (yes, that even includes watching kittens learn how to walk. This was a test. Did you bookmark it or watch it?)
2. Prioritize: To mitigate some of the stress related to multitasking, Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert and bestselling author suggests “Knock out the big things and the toughest stuff early in the day so you have the rest of the day to catch up with the buzz, the urgency, the distractions and the little stuff.”
3. Breathe: If you’re finding the urge to multitask unbearable, but really need to keep plugging away on an important assignment, take some deep breaths. Break the habit of multitasking by switching your attention from distractions to your breathing. Breath is the connection between mind and body. By focusing on it for a few moments, you can calm your mind and regain your focus.
Interested in breathing exercises to help you focus? We have more in this recent blog post.
Tell us what you think? What are your multitasking struggles and how are you managing them? Let us know in the comments below!
 Ophira, Eyal, Nass, Clifford, and Wagner, Anthony D.. Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 33, August 25, 2009.
 Rubinstein, Joshua S., Meyer, David E., and Evans, Jeffrey E. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol. 27(4), 2001, 763-797