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Turn off, tune in, get happy Add to ...

Here's a thought to make you put down your BlackBerry, stop restlessly scanning your mostly useless e-mails and let your cellphone go to voice mail: You are the sum of what you pay attention to.

It's what a Stanford University study released last week concludes by nixing multitasking - apparently multitaskers do worse at key cognitive tasks compared with those who focus on one thing at a time.

It's what American author Winifred Gallagher persuasively argues in her current book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

It's what many of us know in our bones as we flail away simultaneously at our work and other responsibilities in this technology-rich age: The big battle is to stay focused on one thing long enough to do it well and reap the rewards.

In fact, how - and to what - we pay attention is one of the hot topics of neuroscience these days.

Distilling several studies in Rapt, Ms. Gallagher offers so many juicy maxims on the benefits of living the focused life that I was forced to turn off my cellphone and mute the TV to absorb them: "Skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving every aspect of your experience from mood to productivity to relationships."

Apparently staying focused and not fragmented is "the next best thing" to happiness. I didn't realize that - although I should have because, like many others, I tend to devolve into random negativity when I'm trying to do too many things at once.

Flitting from task to task, I wonder if I measure up in any of them and worry that I'm just going to conk out from the stress.

While I've never been a fantastic multitasker, I used to think it fulfilled valuable functions. It sparked a fun rush of adrenalin. It kept boredom at bay.

And it was working mothers who put multitasking on the map. How else were we to get through our daily lives if we didn't do at least two or maybe even three things at once? So you frantically dandled the sick baby on your knee as you wrote or made that morning business call. You mentally planned the evening meal as you endured the last office meeting of the day - then, when you got home, you distractedly greeted your kids, ran to the stove and maybe even took one last call as you stirred the stew. (I badly burned my favourite jacket doing just that.)

In fact, I once suggested working moms should donate our brains to science, so "gifted" were we at operating on so many levels at once.

But the minute any working parent gets out of the crazy zone - when your kids are young and utterly dependent, and therefore must be attended to no matter what else is going on - you realize you dodged a huge bullet if you didn't make at least one big mistake trying to pull off too many things at the same time.

Our brains need to breathe. They need to home in on a particular task - Ms. Gallagher describes this function as "a cranial laser" - in order to do it with some degree of excellence.

Paying attention to one thing instead of multitasking can not only save your life (most jurisdictions are now seeking bans on handheld cellphone use while driving), but your relationships. Everyone I know has been annoyed or even hurt by someone else's downward glance toward the BlackBerry as you're making your key point or even just chatting intimately with a friend. No matter how the other person frames it ("Oh, let me just check to see if that's so-and-so"), it's a clear signal of where you rank in that person's universe.

I've been caught more than once going through my e-mail after I've started a phone conversation: the telltale ping, the delayed response, the embarrassed "sorry what were you saying about your dad's lungs?" Also, the chances of sending an e-mail to the wrong person increase exponentially if you're doing something else at the same time: Like the one I sent only a few weeks ago - "See you tonight!" - to an interview subject I barely knew, instead of the friend I was meeting for dinner.

With all this outing of the inefficiencies and drawbacks of multitasking, doing several things at once is bound to become more covert, falling out of favour as the gold badge of busy.

"You're not e-mailing during this phone meeting are you?" we'll tsk tsk to each other if we hear that tap tap tap. Job interviews will have a new make-or-break question: "Tell me, do you multitask? You do? Next!"

And if that doesn't deter you, Ms. Gallagher's conclusion that looking back, "you'd see that your life has been fashioned from what you've paid attention to and what you haven't" may well do the trick.

 

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