Multitasker? How To Keep It Healthy

woman multitasking

You begin your day by simultaneously checking Facebook, applying mascara and fixing your kids breakfast, and you end your day by watching TV, preparing dinner and returning office e-mails all at once. Is it any wonder that you don't feel calm, refreshed and satisfied?

In the information era, everyone is multitasking — and it turns out that all that activity is making us more stressed and less happy. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when we try to accomplish too many tasks at once, our bodies release adrenaline and stress hormones, which create an anxious cycle: The more frenzied we feel, the more we take on, making us even more stressed and less happy. So how to break the cycle? Dr. Catherine Birndorf, a women's mental health psychiatrist and co-author of The Nine Rooms of Happiness, runs down some simple ways for even the most intense multitasker to feel good.

Be Present
Are you checking your e-mail while your husband tells you about his day? Texting over lunch with your cousin? Making work calls at your son's soccer match? "This can detract from your happiness because it impacts your connections to loved ones and your quality of life," says Birndorf. A study of 60,000 Germans over 25 years showed that those who prioritized relationships with their families over material success and careers were happiest. The fact is if you have one eye on your cell phone over dinner, you lose out on precious moments of real human connection. "Multitasking can really impair your ability to be present," says Birndorf. So when interacting with someone you love, focus on them only — and you may see your own satisfaction rise.

Recognize That Perfection Doesn't Equal Happiness
Multitaskers often think that if they mop the floor while overseeing the kids' homework, talking on speakerphone with their sister, doing squats and preparing dinner, life will fall into place perfectly — and will bear happiness. In fact, while ambition can have positive effects, perfectionism tends to cause anxiety and stress, which can negatively affect mood and health (a recent study showed that those with a tendency toward perfectionism have a 51 percent increased risk of death compared to those with little tendency toward perfectionism). Birndorf notes that since perfection is impossible, the endless quest for it can be only exasperating. "Happiness is not a destination that you can arrive at and sit there comfortably for the rest of your life," says Birndorf. "It comes in moments and chunks. It's about the journey, not the endgame."

Appreciate Happiness When It Hits
Multitasking can blind you to a lovely experience because you're distracted by other worries. "You don't want to be at a social event thinking about your butt," says Birndorf. You also don't want to be stressing about work at your kid's school play or focusing on the dirty bathroom while out to dinner with your husband. According to a recent study out of the University of North Carolina, happiness lies in the little moments: People who felt gratitude for the small gestures made by their partners (like planning a nice meal or picking up a cup of good coffee) were far happier in their relationships than those who didn't. So once in a while, take a breath, forget about your goals and commitments, and simply appreciate the little things as they happen: a cup of tea with your mom, an afternoon walk with a friend or an hour reading a great novel on your couch.

Take Stock of Your Own Life
Multitaskers often feel compelled to give their time to everyone, from kids to friends to bosses. "Not only do we demand this of ourselves, but we allow others to demand it of us," says Birndorf. Step back from the melee and see where you can pull back: Is it housework? At the office? With social commitments? There are usually a few areas where a person is especially overtaxed. "Find out where you're giving too much," says Birndorf. Be realistic: The kids, for example, could make their own breakfast; you could skip the book club; and your partner would survive if you ordered pizza once in a while. Recognizing just a few needless obligations can make a world of difference.

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Ask for Help
Once you figure out what's bringing you down, find a solution. Invest in a housecleaner, hire a babysitter or ask your boss for some relief. Asking for help can inspire guilt in perfectionist multitaskers, but Birndorf notes that it's about self-responsibility. "You can blame everyone for taking your time away from you, but you're the one who keeps giving," she says. "It's not always an easy road and takes practice and you may be rejected, but if you're direct, straightforward and honest, you should have a good chance of getting what you need."

How can you relax in a world of increasingly intrusive pings, rings, pops and RSS feeds? A relatively large-scale study out of the UK found that Internet addicts had a higher rate of depression than non-addicts, while a recent study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that high school students who text excessively or spend extreme amounts of time on social networking sites are at risk for depression, alcohol abuse and other problems. So turn off the BlackBerry, shut down the computer, switch off the TV, and focus on your family or just yourself — if only for a few hours a night. "This can be a discipline you have to train for," says Birndorf, who has met the challenge herself. She and her physician husband put all electronics out of reach for two or three hours a night before their kids go to bed. On vacations, Birndorf recommends turning on an e-mail away message and tucking away devices. "The brain needs time to unplug," she says.

Get in Your Flow
Happiness expert and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for immersion in a focused task: flow. Csikszentmihalyi famously theorized that those fully engaged in a creative or skillful task experience joy, fulfillment and replenishment. For some people, it's dancing, working out or riding a bike. For others, it's a creative pursuit, like reading, writing or painting."Doing what you love is not selfish, it's self preservation," says Birndorf. One thing's for sure: You can't have an optimal experience if you've got one eye on your e-mail in-box or an appointment in 10 minutes. So set aside some time and mental space to follow your passions and pleasures without letting other aspects of life intrude. "This is how you revitalize yourself," says Birndorf.

Written by Justine van der Leun for AOL Health

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This article was originally published at AOL Health. Reprinted with permission from the author.