The myth of multitasking and what that says about willpower

It’s a beautiful Spring afternoon here in Bellingham—or more accurately, it’s a beautiful Spring moment.  Pacific Northwesterners know the weather is always changeable in Spring and Fall; I know the sun outside my window likely won’t last the afternoon.  A moment ago, I took a quick walk through the garden, looking at some damage from the high winds we’ve been having, and checking out the weeds I’ve been ignoring.

I’ve been ignoring those weeds because, on the advice of a physical therapist, I’ve been trying not to do the things that aggravate some pain in my shoulder.  (It’s nice to have a good excuse not to weed, for once.)

I finished planting my vegetable patch this last weekend.  To avoid aggravating the shoulder problem, I decided to become left handed until I got the garden planted, or my right arm got better, which ever came first.  Sounds silly, but it has worked really well for some things, like doing laundry—it helps me avoid some automatic motions that are painful.

I’ve discovered that when I consciously think about it, I can do most things left handed (except write) pretty easily—not well, but well enough.  Using the shovel or my favorite weeding tool, or pitching weeds into the weed bucket, for example.

My intentions failed me, however, when I got distracted—when I had to rethink my garden plan because I had previously planted something where the next artichoke plant really ought to go.  With my problem-solving brain distracted, I defaulted to instinctual behavior.  In other words, I reverted to right-handed weeding or shoveling as soon as I was no longer thinking about what I was doing.

Our conscious minds can only do so much at one time.  Mine can supervise my attempts to protect my arm while it heals, or it can plan a garden, but not both at once.

This has some implications for how we approach habit problems like smoking or weight control.  For one thing, it could explain why sometimes it’s so easy to exercise our willpower, and at other times it’s impossible.  It’s easy when there’s nothing else challenging our reasoning mind, and hard when we are asking that reasoning mind to multitask.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the research that shows that what we call multitasking is really our ability to quickly shift our attention from one task to another.  It turns out that asking our reasoning minds to add regulating habitual behavior to other challenges leads to overloading—and then our brains get tired and give up easily.

Making a lasting change to instinctual behavior requires enlisting the subconscious mind—the part of our minds that works with our automatic behaviors.  Under hypnosis, we can align both our problem-solving side and our emotional side, clearing the path to our habit change goals.

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