The myth of multitasking

If you're an adult, living in the 21st century, and you're reading this sentence – chances are you have about a dozen demands on your time at any given moment. 

That email you have to send, those groceries you have to pick up, that call you have to make, that tune you have to work on, that project you have to finish, that show you wanted to watch, the kids and/or pets you have to feed, the you you have to feed...

You get the picture. And as we work hard to get all these competing tasks ticked off the mental to-do list, it can be tempting to think we're 'multitasking' to streamline our daily tasks and get it all done.

Maybe you call your mom while you make dinner ("Ow! No sorry, I just burned my hand getting the tray out of the oven"), or sneakily reply to those messages on your phone while you're catching up on the show you're binging with your dearly beloved ("What are you laughing at? Did I miss something?"), or make a mental list of things to prioritise that afternoon during a particularly boring meeting ("Oh, were you talking to me? Sorry...").

Sure, you missed a couple of details – but the tasks are done, and you were being efficient... right?

You are kidding yourself if you think that's the case. 

Multitasking is not an effective way to get anything done that you’re trying to do. 

That's because – and I can't state this clearly enough – multitasking doesn't work.

It's been proven by countless studies now that your pre-frontal cortex – the part of your brain that's the control centre for thoughts and actions – can only focus on one task at a time.

The idea that you can simultaneously manage multiple tasks is a complete myth

Because, while certain tasks can become automated in your mind to the point that they're unconsciously competent – making it seem like you can juggle many tasks at one time – in fact, you're just getting better at switching rapidly between tasks, because some are already more automated than others. 

And while some people may seem to be 'good multitaskers' – like that old saying that you should 'always give something you want done to a busy person' – they're actually just very well practised at switching tasks.

But this doesn't mean they're doing any of them well.

Research has shown that division of focus massively reduces productivity. 

And unfortunately, when you multitask, your ‘brain bandwidth’ overloads trying to keep track of all the tasks, leaving no room for focus, adjustment, or mindfulness regarding any of them.

Can you think of a pursuit we all enjoy, where you need to focus clearly so you can meaningfully improve technique, work on specific issues, and absorb information into your memory so it becomes second-nature that you can replicate well in a high pressure situation?

Of course, I'm talking about playing the bagpipes. And as many of us know from painfully personal experience, bagpipe culture is often the worst culprit for asking players to do many things at once, especially when we're learning. 

Far too many bands and tutors teach brand new beginners rhythm, melody, theory, and embellishments simultaneously, before 'transitioning' them to wrestle drones and a chanter while learning to march and practice band drill at the same time, hoping they'll 'figure it out' while they rush them into a kilt and onto parades and gigs.

This doesn’t work. In fact, unless you figure out how to focus on just one thing at a time, your progress will grind to a devastatingly slow crawl, at best. 

I'm willing to bet you know that feeling all too well.

So how can you, as a piper who wants to improve, reject multitasking and see your playing ability skyrocket as a result?

The answer is clear – maintain a singular focus on objective fundamentals every time you practice, and do so in a distraction-free space.

If you can commit to creating and maintaining a practice area that's always set up and ready to go, with no cellphone notifications dinging or family swinging open the door to grab you – your practice will be infinitely more fruitful. 

Many of my students, when they commit to shutting out distractions, find within a few days that their enthusiasm for piping is reborn like a phoenix rising from the ashes... of multitasking. 

Rejecting multitasking, singular focus, objective fundamentals, and distraction-free practice are all covered in much more detail as part of our 11 Commandments of Mastery course (access here if you're a Dojo student, or sign up here if you're yet to join us!).

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