Multitasking, mindfulness and wellbeing

A recent article in Fast Company dubbed "Monotasking is the new multitasking" reflects the spreading consensus that our digital devices are splitting our attention far too much with negative effects on both our productivity and social lives.  The article suggests a number of strategies to tame the temptation to check email incessantly at work and even makes the revolutionary suggestion that you occasionally leave your phone at home.

Of course, beyond productivity, we're interested in effects on wellbeing, and there is indeed evidence that multitasking is bad for it  (Pea et al., 2012; Becker, Alzahabi, & Hopwood, 2013).  What's more, technology designers and developers have already begun to take this challenge on. [Read more...]

With multiple devices on hand, each of which houses multiple applications displayed in parallel windows, modern devices are multitasking dynamos.  Much of th work in attentive computer interfaces dedicates research and development to tackling this problem.  More recently some popular software designs have been turning attention to the support of uninterrupted focus.  Microsoft Word's "Focus View" and WordPress' "Distraction Free Writing" Button are two good examples of options that allow the user to banish visual clutter - out of sight, out of mind.

The  Freedom Software for Mac by SoftTonic takes it further and allows users to cut their internet connection voluntarily for a set period of time.  If you want to override your original plan, you have to reboot.

Aside from restructuring our environment, the other antidote to continuous partial attention is of course, the practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness, a kind of broad and non-judgemental present-moment awareness, is not only a stress reducer, it’s also a key to wiser decisions, greater life satisfaction and overall psychological and physical wellbeing, if you're to believe the research, and there's a lot of it.    The mindfulness research guide has catalogued over 2,500 papers on mindfulness, including almost 500 in 2012 alone.

Designers and developers are stepping in to support the growing interest in mindfulness as evident in the number of new technologies intended to support mindfulness practice.  Examples range from websites like Smiling Mind to app-based guidance like the Mindfulness app, to more experimental and fully embodied experiences such as Sonic Cradle -- all of these are listed in the Positive Computing Gallery.  Have a favorite app for mindfulness or monotasking?  Let us know.

  • Becker, M. W., Alzahabi, R., & Hopwood, C. J. (2013). Media multitasking is associated with symptoms of depression and social anxiety. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 16(2), 132–5
  • Brown, Kirk Warren, & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

  • Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932.
  • Pea, R., Nass, C., Meheula, L., Rance, M., Kumar, A., Bamford, H., … Zhou, M. (2012). Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year-old girls. Developmental psychology, 48(2), 327–36. doi:10.1037/a0027030