While recently listening to an episode of the podcast Stuff You Should Know (SYSK), I was reminded of something that I sometimes try to conveniently forget.
Multitasking is a myth.
Like many, I often have so much going on that I feel like I need to do two things at once, but it doesn’t work that way.
As the SYSK podcast pointed out, our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, which is why people instinctively turn down the radio when they’re lost. They know they need to truly focus on what they’re doing if they want to get wherever they’re trying to go.
Even so, many of us – and yes, I’m including myself – try to multitask, but in addition to not working, it has some negative side effects for our eating habits.
The first and most obvious impact from attempting to multitask is that if you try to do something else while eating, you’re not eating mindfully.
Think about any time you’ve eaten popcorn at a movie theater, or munched on some snacks while watching or reading something at home. Are you paying attention to the food? Do you notice how it tastes? Can you tell when you’ve had enough?
If you’re paying attention to what you’re watching or reading, you can’t also focus on the food, which means you eat more, and you don’t even enjoy it because you don’t notice how it tastes. That, in turn, can lead to more eating because you feel cheated out of the tastes you were hoping for the first time you ate the food.
Then there’s the stress factor, which comes up in a couple of ways.
When you’re trying to do multiple things at once, what you’re really doing is switching back and forth between two things very quickly. For example, I’ll admit that I often check work email while attending work meetings, partly because I get a lot of emails, but also because much of the time, I’m not actively involved in the meeting.
The problem, of course, is that sometimes I need to contribute to the meeting, and I may miss my cue to speak if I’m answering email. Or I might not hear something I need to know, and then I have to ask someone to repeat themselves, which is a waste of everyone’s time.
Plus, studies have shown that when you’re trying to multi-task like this, you make more mistakes, and then you have to fix them, which takes more time. Or maybe you don’t notice the mistakes before they’ve already caused problems, which is a whole other headache.
All of this adds up to stress for you. Instead of accomplishing more, you’re actually getting less done, and you’re not doing it as well, which is never a good feeling.
And as I’ve written before, stress is one of the biggest reasons people eat when they’re not hungry.
Impact on Creativity
Finally, there’s another less obvious impact from multi-tasking – it makes you less creative.
A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that since multitasking requires so much use of your “working memory,” you don’t have enough mental bandwidth to daydream or be creative.
On the surface, this may not sound like it has anything to do with eating, but if you go deeper, it does.
In mindful eating, if you find yourself wanting to each when you’re not hungry, it’s important to understand what need you’re trying to fill. Thinking about this and getting into the real reasons takes mental energy, as does finding a way to address those true needs in a more creative way than eating.
Additionally, in some cases, your true need is to be creative. Finding a way to express yourself through some creative outlet – be it music, words, art, dance, cooking, or something else – is extremely important for your mental and emotional health. It can act as a form of meditation to focus your mind and help you be in the moment.
Plus, being creative often boosts your happiness. It’s incredibly satisfying to create a piece of art, for example, and it’s often just plain fun to sing or dance along to an energetic song.
But if you’re too busy switching between tasks, you might not have the energy to do any of those things. And instead of meeting your creative needs, you could end up overeating.
One Thing at a Time
As a caveat, you can occasionally do two things at once, as long as they involve different areas of the brain. For example, you can cut vegetables and hold a conversation without too much trouble, and experienced knitters can work on easy knitting pieces while paying attention to something else.
But by and large, it’s far better to focus on one thing at a time. You’ll get things done more quickly and with fewer mistakes.
Plus, you won’t be as stressed out, you’ll be more creative, and you won’t be as tempted to eat mindlessly.
So here’s to staying present in the moment and having the energy to do fun, creative things that will bring you more happiness.