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Multitasking and the Transcendental Meditation Technique
by Linda Egenes
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8 February 2015
Have you ever noticed that when you really focus on something—writing, cooking, creating a work of art, playing a musical instrument, reading a great book—you end up feeling refreshed, renewed, revitalized? Yet when you do the same task while also texting your kids, talking on the phone, listening to the radio and keeping up with each email that comes in, you end up feeling exhausted?
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says there's a reason for this: multitasking takes a toll on our brains. Not only does it wear us out, it basically doesn't work.
Apparently our brains are not wired for multitasking. In fact we're never actually focusing on more than one thing at a time. What we're really doing is switching from one task to another very rapidly, and that is making us less productive and more exhausted. So if you think you're saving time by listening to a podcast while doing your taxes, you're deluding yourself.
Levitin addresses the myth of multitasking in his illuminating book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Even in a short book excerpt recently published in TheGuardian.com, Levitin cites enough research studies about the perils of multitasking to make you want to toss your cell phone into the ocean.
To name just a few, multitasking increases the production of adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone). The result is mental fog and confused thinking.
Multitasking is also addicting. Similar to eating sugar, the pleasure/reward center of the brain is stimulated as we hear the ping of the next incoming email. And researchers have found that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from smoking marijuana.
Even the thought of unanswered emails can detract from your brain power. When trying to concentrate on a task, the nagging thought of an unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points!
And students who take the edge off their boredom by studying in front of the TV? They're wasting their time and lowering their GPA, as it's going to be a lot harder for them to retrieve the learned information during the final exam. Multitasking causes it to be stored in the wrong place in the brain—the correct place is the hippocampus, where facts and ideas are meant to be stored, organized and categorized for easy retrieval.
Levitin sums it all up by saying, ''Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.''
Whew. Now I'm thoroughly convinced that multitasking is bad for my brain and my productivity. But the question remains: What to do about it?
Levitin offered no solutions, but here are a few options.
Option #1: Become a Luddite and stop using social media, email or cell phones altogether. This would certainly make it easier to sustain focus, but it might also cause you to lose your job. Not to mention losing contact with your friends, kids and other loved ones. Since not many people are willing to drop out of the modern world, this solution does not seem helpful or even likely for most people.
Option #2: Schedule a block of time each day for sustained focus by turning off the email, the cell phone and the social media alerts during this time.
I've been experimenting with this myself, limiting my email checking to three times a day: first thing in the morning, right before noon, and later in the afternoon. For three hours each morning, in between checking the email, I work on projects that require sustained focus, such as writing this blog post. I hold this time sacred for creating.
The second block of time in the afternoon is when I take care of myriad business obligations—writing to editors, lining up my next projects, proofreading and formatting, and marketing tasks such as posting my articles on social media and my personal blog, etc. These all require switching my attention back and forth many times between emails, the Internet, and social media.
This schedule has made me twice as productive as before, when I was trying to do all parts of my job at one time.
I realize that as the owner of my own writing business, I have control of my time and the luxury of setting my own schedule and creating a quiet place to work. However, many other people don't have that luxury—and even if they need to accomplish works of sustained focus (perusing spreadsheets, creating strategies, writing reports) they still have to be available to instantly answer countless business emails, which usually take priority. Or they may have to work in an office environment where there are constant interruptions and noise from conversations.
So what additional options are available when you really can't turn off the interruptions?
Option #3: What if there was a way to cultivate your brain to spontaneously maintain focus even while switching between tasks? To maintain your inner calm no matter how many demands come flying your way? A perfect example of this is the experience of the 'zone,' that state of inner silence and euphoria that top athletes experience even when they are switching their minds between myriad stimuli and using their bodies to perform with great speed, dynamism and skill.
As Billy Jean King stated: ''On my very best days, I have this fantastic, utterly un-self-conscious feeling of invincibility. I appreciate what my opponent is doing, but in a very detached, abstract way, like an observer in the next room... my concentration is so perfect, it almost seems as though I'm able to transport myself beyond the turmoil of the court to some place of total peace and calm. That perfect moment happens in all sports. It's a perfect combination of a violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.''
Let's face it, most of us would like to experience the zone that athletes like Billy Jean King describe. (After all, with so many demands from so many directions, many working moms feel like they've run at least one marathon by the end of the day.)
Here's the good news: It turns out that we can all experience the same level of integrated brain functioning as top athletes by practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique.
Research by neuroscientist Fred Travis, Ph.D. and Oslo University Professor Haruld Harung, Ph.D., shows that the level of brain integration in world-class athletes is similar to that seen in individuals who have been practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique for a number of years.
''These results are also consistent with those that we've found in world-class managers,'' Dr. Harung said. ''This research actually may show how the brains of top performers in any field are different from those of others.''
Fortunately, people report results from the very first meditation. Dozens of research studies show that regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique leads to greater focus, increased concentration and higher productivity. School children who practice TM are finding it easier to learn, concentrate and achieve better grades, as shown by research. Even children with severe ADHD find it significantly easier to focus, study and engage in meaningful relationships when they practice TM regularly. Many business leaders have seen their productivity improve so much that they have organized for their entire company to practice TM daily.
Oprah Winfrey is a good example. She recently talked about her own TM practice on the Dr. Oz show and how she got her entire team at Harpo Studios to practice TM in preparation for a special feature she did on the TM technique for her ''Next Chapter'' series.
Oprah said, ''In preparation for that show I brought Transcendental Meditation teachers into Harpo Studios to teach me and my team how to meditate. So we started meditating. Seven of us led to 70, led to 270, led to now everyone in the company meditates. Nine o'clock in the morning, and 4:30 in the afternoon no matter what is going on, we stop and we meditate.
''And that way of being 'still' with ourselves—coming back to the center—and recognizing that something is more important than you, it's more important than the work you are doing, brings a kind of energy and an intensity of energy, an intention that we have never had before.
''And you can't imagine what has happened in the company. People who used to have migraines, don't. People are sleeping better. People have better relationships. People interact with other people better. It's been fantastic.
''So the one thing I want to continue to do is to center myself everyday, and make that a practice for myself because I am one thousand percent better when I do that, one thousand percent better when I take myself back to something bigger than myself.''
So if life is throwing you too many demands all at once—why not give TM a try? It's a way to stay in touch with your silent core even while meeting the myriad demands of modern life.
Watch video at Transcendental Meditation for Women titled 'Live EEG demonstration and Interview', about the TM technique and integrated brain functioning.
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent's Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.
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