Here's a recent moment I'm not proud of: I'm driving down a two-lane highway, listening to an audiobook, while checking a text and Google Maps using the split-screen feature on my Android phone. I look up to see a construction worker in the road signaling that I slow down and I'm suddenly ashamed of my irresponsible multi-tasking and distracted driving.

Oh, and by the way, I didn't retain any of the last few minutes of my audiobook and the text definitely could have waited. 

I started to think back to a number of irritating moments and social interactions from the past few days and wondered how many could be attributed to similar bad habits. The receptionist at the dentist who tried to schedule me on the wrong day multiple times while clearly distracted; the harsh critique from a reader who had obviously not read more than a paragraph of my story; the numerous distracted drivers (even more so than me) who don't quite stay in their lanes at all times. 

The fact that there is an epidemic of distractions, vanishingly small attention spans and an almost involuntary impulse towards multitasking is not a new revelation, but it occurs to me that the problem may be even more insidious, pervasive and dangerous than we're acknowledging. 

Recent studies have shown that multitasking kills productivity, may lower your IQ and even damage your brain

But what's become more apparent to me recently is that widespread multitasking - often out of what we perceive as a need to keep with the utter barrage of media and communication coming at us with unprecedented speed and frequency - may rise to the level of a public health issue.

And I don't just mean the notion of multitasking emergency room physicians making mistakes (although this study suggests that's also a real problem).

I'm worried that the very workings of society itself, the social contract we have made to each other, is in danger of unraveling at the hands of our own incompetence, which is driven in part by a culture of distraction and a false sense that focus must be the sacrificial lamb offered up in order to keep up. 

A rather remarkable study recently found that even sitting near someone who is multitasking can decrease your intelligence by 17 percent. 

We are so distracted that our distractions are distracting those around us and making us all dumber for it. 

Another study published this month suggests that media multitaskers are worse at forming impressions of others. The research found that multitasking leads to different perceptions of the environments around us, and likely not for the better. 

It's all common sense really. If you're not paying attention, you're going to miss things and get stuff wrong as a result. 

It's ironic, I think, because part of the reason that we multitask is that we want to be our best selves. We convince ourselves that part of achieving this betterment is keeping up with everything happening in the world, the news, our social circles, or whatever.

But the truth is that none of us are keeping up with it all. And besides, true understanding and improvement comes from deep focus rather than shallow dithering. 

We're not going to stop staring at screens any time soon, but hopefully we can start focusing on just one at a time and only when we're not doing anything else. 

Recently I started leaving my earbuds at home for long runs. No music, no audiobooks, just the sound of the breeze and my repeated footfalls on the trail below me. I know what some of you are thinking, but no, I wasn't bored. What's more, I was actually able to focus better the rest of the day and felt less stress and anxiety.

You don't have to buy new running shoes to break out of the multi-tasking habit, though. You can start with these easy tips instead. Good luck!

Published on: Oct 18, 2018