Single-Tasking

“Just try to think of something else.  The brain cannot have two thoughts at once.”

–my mother, likely in the 1970’s.

This was my mother’s advice to me, the anxious kid I was.  She was trying to find a way to help me relax, and I never forgot this nugget of wisdom from her.  Like so many other things she said to me, it is so true.

Science even backs it up.  It been shown repeatedly that for nearly everyone except a select few with exceptional brains, that we can truly focus on only one task at once.  We may think we are able to hold two or more thoughts or to complete two or more actions simultaneously, but here is the hard truth:  we can’t.

What we think of as multi-tasking, is actually a rapid start/stop/start/stop/start process that creates microsecond delays that add up quickly over time, and diminish our accuracy at all of the tasks we are trying to accomplish.  It is a fast-paced switching back-and-forth, which takes a toll in efficiency in the end. It may seem as if two or more tasks are being completed simultaneously, but in reality, it can only be one at a time.

So, besides brain health, what does this have to do with health overall?

Actually, a lot.  Many of us attempt to perform these multiple tasks during activities that require complete and undivided attention on one single thing at a time in order to complete them accurately and safely.

The most publicized multi-tasking activity that is widely discouraged is texting while driving.  It is estimated that about 400 deaths occur annually in the United States as a result of texting while driving. 

Many other factors can cause distractions while driving, which add up to approximately 3,000 deaths in the United States annually:

  • talking on the phone
  • eating and/or drinking
  • attending to or speaking with passengers, often children
  • looking for items in the car
  • fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system

I have several glass chunks remaining in my forehead from an auto accident in 1988.  A driver crossed the interstate median, struck the guardrail and became airborne, landing on my side of the small truck I was driving.  She landed upside down on the interstate behind me and skidded into oncoming traffic.  Somehow, we both survived.  She was reaching in the back seat for a pillow, she reported much later in the insurance investigation. 

SIDEBAR:  ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SEATBELT!  YOU WOULDN’T BE READING THIS TODAY IF I HADN’T BEEN WEARING MINE THAT DAY.

Driving is not the only dangerous activity to combine with texting.  Use of one’s phone, whether it is texting, calling, using apps or spending time on the internet requires nearly complete attention.  Doing any of these while simply walking can be dangerous. 

That danger increases when you are crossing the street, walking on uneven surfaces such as grass or broken sidewalks, or going up and down stairs while using your phone.  Many of us have likely seen funny videos of someone walking while using their phone and walking straight into a fountain or other dangerous place. Except that it’s not really funny.  It is dangerous. 

Remaining single-tasked while walking without your phone is important, too.  Especially if you are walking up and down stairs, or if you are using an assistive device such as a cane or walker.  Focusing on your next steps should be your primary goal.  If, like me, however, you try to load your arms up with laundry to go up and down stairs because you have no other choice, then keeping a slow pace, and perhaps leaning on to or holding the railing is of vital importance. (Don’t try to carry your coffee cup with your arms full as you navigate the stairs; I am speaking from experience.)  Even distracting yourself in a conversation can require too much mental load, and it increases your risk of falling.  If you are walking with a friend for exercise outdoors, and carrying on a conversation, remaining focused on the next steps ahead is an important element of safety. 

Taking medications requires precision dosing and accurate dispensing, as well as singular attention to this task.  Medication errors are responsible for untold overdoses and even deaths.  Even if there are no noticeable symptoms, it is never healthy to take the wrong dosage of medication.  Using a daily pill box is a helpful tool to allow you to see which medications have already been taken, and which ones need to be taken, and when.  Of course, the set-up of the medications requires singular focus as well.  Don’t hesitate to ask for help with this task if you need it. 

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As I was typing this on my laptop, Microsoft continued to offer me a new toolbar that would allow me to multi-task.  I kindly continued to click out of the ad.

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Mother knows best.  Your brain can really only do one thing at a time.