Is Multi-tasking Bad for your Health?


Presence is being attentive to our present reality, to that which is going on for us and around us now.

Does this mean that when we think of the past or the future we lose the experience of presence? It can compromise or reduce the experience of being present, but rarely will we fully lose presence. If as a therapist I am in session with you and fully present to you and then I need to look at my clock to see how much time we have left because I have another client who is on a tight schedule after you, I am no longer as fully present. I am still present to you: I am aware of you; I know we are sitting in the same room together. I haven’t lost my present experience, but the level of presence has shifted because my awareness is now including a future event that involves another person.

There are multiple levels of presence, probably as many levels as there are people in the world today. Most people in European and North American cultures live between present, past and future. These days it is called multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is being involved in more than one single task at any one time. It has become the expected norm for the twenty-first century human. Multi-tasking asks you to have the ability to be present to a task you are involved in while at the same time be involved in another task. Multi-tasking may involve in two, three, four or even more tasks at once. I recall seeing a drawing many years ago in England symbolizing the domestic plight of over-worked women. A woman stands by the kitchen stove stirring a steaming pot with one hand, the other hand cradles a baby, there is a puppy straining on a leash tied to her ankle and she is telling her two sons nearby to quit arguing with each other. Meanwhile her husband is in the corner sitting in a comfy armchair reading a newspaper conveniently oblivious to his wife’s demands and stresses. Multi-tasking may reflect someone who is involved in numerous tasks all at one time; it may also describe someone who has “a lot on the go,” who typically has many things to take care of usually in a limited period of time.

I spent two days on a public boat on the Mekong River in Northern Laos one summer along with eighty other people from many parts of the world. In the hours the boat gently cruised, there was nothing else to do but to be present to the world of the Mekong. And there was such a lot to be present to: there was the village life – men and women carrying fish from boats to the village, naked children playing on the sandy shores stopping to wave to those of us watching, the ever-changing shapes of mountains sometimes close to the river’s edge sometimes distant, the swirling patterns of the water as the boat negotiated eddies of the current and small rapids. Most of this time my eyes were focused on the fascinating world passing me by outside of the boat. When I turned to the world inside I was witness to multi-tasking of another kind: multi-task conversations. Conversations between two people in this environment allowed for one person to reach into his pocket, produce a cell phone to check for messages on the screen. This would prompt the other person to do the same, meanwhile the conversation goes on unabated with both looking between the cell phone and each other. Another example: two others are conversing when one person notices and points out some impressive mountain scenery and tells her partner she just needs to take a picture because her friend at home asked her to take as many pictures of mountains as she could. I hear other conversations around me, especially on the last afternoon, that the voyage is too long, and how much both conversationalists wished they were at their destination now.

In all of these examples attention changed from singular attention to divided attention. The conversation started out with singular attention to each other. Each is present to the other. When one person’s attention moves to the mountains she is reminded of her friend’s request to photograph mountains. Part of her attention in that moment has moved to her past, to the conversation she once had with her friend. For many people, two days on a slow boat was too long. Their attention was divided between the need to tell the person they were in conversation with about this and at the same time project themselves into the future, wishing they were now at their destination. This is Divided Attention.

Divided attention is a form of multi-tasking where attention is divided between a number of realities, sometimes, as with multi-tasking, all at one time, sometimes through the more linear process of shifting from one reality to another to another then maybe back to the first reality. Divided Attention is the most common form of presence. I see it where I live in Canada and on excursions to U.S cities, I also saw it in the internet cafes in Laos when young saffron-robed monks were practicing their English with each other while at the same time surfing the internet and occasionally answering their cell phones.

There is nothing wrong with dividing your attention between realities if the people involved are in agreement with this arrangement. This arrangement would certainly not work for me or my clients in my private practice. Our agreed upon arrangement is for me to be singularly attentive to them. As a result of Singular Attention I am as fully present as I am able to be to them. I would lose business fast if I were to check my email on my cell phone in mid-conversation with my clients, because Divided Attention to this extent is outside of the agreement.

When we divide attention we are not as fully present. We cannot be, because a part of us has one foot in the present and another foot in a past or a future event. We have not lost presence – a part of us is still attentive to or at least aware of present reality even if it just being aware of what is taking place around us. But we cannot be fully present – we are not in Singular Attention

Loss of presence occurs only when we become fully involved in another reality. We lose presence when we sleep. Sleeping is a shift in our experience of reality. During sleep we are no longer present to everyday reality. We may be more present to the events taking place in our dream-state than the comings-and-goings of the family getting ready for school downstairs. Being asleep and invested in the realities that accompany sleep, we are no longer present to one aspect of reality, but we are now present to another reality. This other reality is now our truth. When someone has a mental illness, where she or he is fully convinced by the reality mental illness produces for him or her present reality is no longer relevant to that person. This person cannot be present. He or she has lost presence.


Contemplation/Discussion Question:

When is Divided Attention necessary/essential for you?

 Is Presence simply an agreement?

 What do you think?  


Tune in next Friday for an exploration of the deeper experiences of Presence.

Please pass these excerpts from A Return to Consciousness to your family and friends.

Thank you,


One thought on “Is Multi-tasking Bad for your Health?

  1. Sanghavasini Ananda

    This is such a refreshing look on multi-tasking, strangely enough I never thought of it as something that happens in our inner world as Divided Attention. Knowing this now I will practice noticing when Divided Attention is happening and noticing what happens. Thank you so much for this Pietro, this will greatly enrich my spiritual practice!

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