My experiment with "uni"tasking

another-1I may have just discovered the single most important key to successful weight loss.

But more on that later.

In my last post, I had committed to a day of “uni”tasking on February 21st. Well, Saturday arrived and I set out on my mission to do only one thing at a time. It was inspired by my desire to be more “mindful”, as they say, about my activities during the day.

It did not take long to figure out that this was a flawed experiment. Multitasking falls within a spectrum of behaviors, after all. Does talking to your spouse while having breakfast count? What about humming along to the music on the radio? Still, I was determined to eliminate some of the more obvious multitasking habits like reading the newspaper with my morning tea and watching the television while eating.

By 9 a.m. my resolve was already shaken. The oatmeal I usually have for breakfast tasted like the horse food it is without the the daily spice of the comics page. Driving to an errand, I chafed at not being able to listen to my favorite program on NPR. Only the thought that this was an experiment limited to a single day kept me going.

What I discovered ( apart from the fact that I really don’t have the appetite or temperament to “uni”task) is that our standards become much higher when we bring our complete attention to our current task. The book I was reading had to work hard to capture my imagination and I discarded several choices before settling on the novel I wanted to read the most. While listening to music I was quick to change the song if it did not suit my tastes to a T. While cooking, I hovered over the dish, tasting and correcting till I felt I got it absolutely right.

The corollary to that is that multitasking disguises a multitude of mediocrity. If you have headphones on while writing an essay, the music simply has to be pleasant and non-disruptive..chances are the essay will be too. If you are watching your favorite show while doing household chores, it is fine if the tasks are repetitive and ingrained in muscle memory, but it would be hard to try out a new recipe, for instance. Multitasking allows our brains to give fractional attention to our many simultaneous tasks and they all suffer a little as a result.

Studies by the American Psychological Association suggest that we also lose time while multitasking.

…for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got “up to speed” faster when they switched to tasks they knew better, an observation that may lead to interfaces designed to help overcome people’s innate cognitive limitations.

But back to the weight loss tip. Mireille Guiliano, author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, suggested that one of the reasons women in France don’t overeat is that they savor every bite and know when to stop. I can vouch for that. When all your attention is on the plate in front of you, you tend to be aware of and respond to the cues your stomach and brain are sending you. There is no incentive to keep eating after your stomach signals “full” and another more desirable task awaits your undivided attention. I found myself eating a lot less than I normally do and this is one “uni” tasking habit I’m going to take a shot at continuing.

But right now the oatmeal is neighing to be eaten. Thank god for the Sunday funnies!

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