A 32-year-old client tells me, “I was in the midst of my appraisal meeting when the doorbell rang, and since I live alone, I needed to get the door, give the OTP and collect the parcel. While this entire process barely took five minutes, by the time I got back to the call, I was distracted and felt I had lost focus. This has been my life for the last few months, I feel like my energy is constantly divided between various tasks and nothing gets my full attention. At the end of most days, I feel exhausted, and there is a lingering headache.”
Multitasking has assumed a completely new meaning during the pandemic. Since March 2020, most people, whether they are living alone or with their partner, have reported spending significant energy and time in switching their attention between two separate tasks during their work hours. Both men and women have reported constant switching between tasks while working from home and working at home—be it email notifications, attending to phone calls, doorbells, children’s needs, parents’ needs, or even cooking meals.
This has left people fatigued at a cognitive and emotional level. My client experience and some research studies point out that women are more likely to be interrupted while they are working and are expected to shift their attention between household chores, caregiving needs and office work.
We keep forgetting that there is a price attached to this mental task-switching. Whether it’s our creativity, ability to focus, work efficiency or productivity, all of this has been impacted negatively. So many young people mention how they read emails and messages multiple times and have begun to forget important information.
This multitasking has come in the way of people being able to savour their work achievements or intimate moments with family, leading to a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction.
Personal life has taken a hit for many, with a significant increase in marital discord, parents feeling guilty about not spending quality time with children—and reporting that they experience numbness and feel continually wired.
While people are multitasking more than ever and saving travel time, research data seems to indicate that they are also working longer hours than pre-pandemic office hours and even skipping meals or eating them in front of their screens.
If you identify with this and feel you are moving between various work tasks and home responsibilities day in and day out, this may be a good moment to pause. The first step is to recognise that multitasking is overrated, and the human brain is designed for monotasking.
I would define monotasking as the act of singularly focusing on one thing by being mindfully present. This simple act of attentive presence, whether it’s in relation to work or spending time with loved ones, can go a long in way in helping you to feel more centred, focused, and savour the task at hand. I do know that when it comes to the doorbell or phone calls, we often don’t have a choice and have to pause work, but a good strategy would be to make a note of what you were working on so that you can get back to it, or even write down a key word or phrase if you were in the midst of an important conversation. If your job allows you to schedule a chunk of your time where you can monotask and only focus on important presentations or reading, then do that consciously.
How productive we are is a function of how we rest. Very often, people’s idea of rest involves lying down and catching up on news or social media—stop yourself if you do that. During my burnout experience about eight years ago, I came up with the term “pause rituals”, where I engage in self-soothing rituals and monotask during that time: for example, walking mindfully without listening to a podcast or speaking to loved ones and not looking at the phone.
Maybe we need to recognise and stop normalising this task-switching and find pockets of monotasking.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.
Also read: Make room for hope during the pandemic