Emerging psychological research has found that what was previously thought of as a superpower of humans – the ability to multi-task – is not a superpower at all. While we might feel in control and effective juggling many tasks at once, studies have shown that our performance suffers. It’s thought that the mental effort required to switch between the differing requirements of two (or more) tasks results in all tasks being completed to a poorer standard, as well as causing fatigue to set in earlier than it otherwise would have by doing the tasks back-to-back due to the extra effort of switching focus.
Added to this is the growing body of research on mindfulness, which finds that the more thoughts racing around our heads – no matter how positive those thoughts are – the less happy we feel. Thinking about many things at once distracts us from the present moment and the joy that can be achieved when we are aware solely of what is actually occurring. Thinking, we are living in our heads and disengaged from the present reality of our experience.
The impact of this research and its implications has not been lost on big businesses, where staff of all ranks are expected to be available at all times - updating social media, on call for clients and managers twenty-four seven, as well as doing the technical work of their jobs. Their solution is novel, amusing but apparently effective – colouring books for adults! ANZ, Bupa and Wesfarmers have all bought and distributed adult colouring books to their staff, with anecdotal reports that the books are proving to be a haven of calm in their busy workplaces. The tactile nature of colouring books, along with the requirement to use both your hands and your concentration (got to stay within the lines!), provides a single point of focus in the present which induces feelings of calm and allows employees to return to their work tasks feeling refreshed. Just thirty seconds of colouring in between tasks restored a singular focus and improved feelings of being in control.
Another added benefit of colouring books may be the link to simpler, happier times in childhood. Positive psychology research has shown that positive reminiscing – recalling fond memories of the past in short bursts – leads to increased feelings of wellbeing in the present. Of course, this only applies if you happen to have fond memories of colouring! But there are many creative, open ended, no-right-or-wrong toys that have the power to tap the tactile, present focus that colouring does. Building with Lego, blocks or play dough/ plasticine are other examples of childhood activities that may have the same effect.
This knowledge isn’t just applicable to adults either. Concentrating solely on one task, where stimulation comes from your sensorial interactions with the world, rather than from passive absorption, contains powerful lessons for raising children too. This research suggests that if you’d like to help increase your child’s happiness long term, then tactile, creative, no winners/losers, reality focused toys will foster the required brain development.
So next time you are feeling stressed and need a break, instead of checking your email or facebook (again), reach for a colouring book or some Lego. Let your mind take a break, and let your inner kid be in charge. If it works for high ranking executives and pre-schoolers, it’ll work for you too.
Do you need some help with turning off your mind and connecting to the present? I offer one-to-one mindfulness training, which includes personalised mindfulness exercises tailored to suit you and your life. Contact me on 0421 720 635 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.