Samurai don’t multitask

'BRB, stabbing a bunch of dudes LOL.'

‘BRB, stabbing a bunch of dudes LOL.’


Assuming that long-dead cultural groups were right about everything just because they kicked a lot of ass, had excellent dress sense or have been favourably portrayed in films is rarely sensible. If you subscribe to the idea that we’re constantly expanding our body of knowledge as a species, then ‘old’ automatically means ‘not as good’, and chances are that the Shaolin monk, Roman emperor or Greek philosopher you’re basing your life on had some ridiculous beliefs about the way the world works.

Samurai, for instance, had an absolute shit-ton of stupid ideas. Hagakure, widely regarded as one of the best texts on the samurai mindset (and the one you probably remember from Ghost Dog) offers the following advice:

  • It is good to carry some rouge in one’s sleeve.  It may be that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge.
  • If you attach bags of cloves to your body, you will not be affected by inclemency or colds.
  • Furthermore, drinking a decoction of faeces from a dappled horse is the way to stop bleeding from an injury received by falling off a horse.

Amazing, I agree. But while I don’t agree with taking medical advice from people who thought you should drink liquid horseshit to cure horse-related impact wounds, I do think you should be able to evaluate advice on its own merits. And this, from later on in the same book, is pretty good advice:

‘There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.’

Yup. That’s a man with no Twitter account.

Samurai, of course, did not multitask. Firstly, it obviously isn’t practical if your job involves getting in fights with three-foot razor-blades, or even if you’re just training for those fights with a wooden stick that can still smash bone and pulverize muscle. Secondly (and probably relatedly), samurai culture was designed to encourage single-minded focus: consider, for instance, the tea ceremony, during certain incarnations of which you were banned from talking about anything that wasn’t how nice your tea was, or your immediate surroundings. Thirdly, multitasking is not a real thing: it’s a label applied to ‘messing about’ by people who want to feel good about their ruined attention spans and lack of productivity. Multitasking is at best pointless, and at worst counter-productive, since it doesn’t really exist: you’re actually task-switching, and that means you’re wasting cognitive energy on shifting gears from task to task. A study from the University of Illinois suggests that, because it’s a drain on ‘working memory’, multitasking can stifle creativity, and also (according to various studies), means you make more mistakes. And, of course, there’s the social angle – one study from the University of Essex claims that just having a mobile phone nearby during conversations with your significant other – not even answering it – can put strain on your relationship. Eating while you do other things makes you less present during the meal, and can lead to you stuffing your face with more calories than you need. In other words, multitasking is bullshit.

Now: samurai had an advantage over you, dear reader, in that there wasn’t all that much competing for their attention. They didn’t have smartphones, email or Instagram, and if anyone wanted to bother them they’d have to storm their dojo or at least send a retainer round. So how are you to cope?

Easy: pretend to be a samurai, by reducing your reliance on, and obedience to, technology. For instance, if you can get away with it, switch your phone volume and email notifications off until the pre-determined times of day (11am and 4pm are sensible) that you’re going to check them. Change your voicemail to a message that says you don’t really check voicemail and you’re easier to reach via text or an email. Batch up emails to do at those times. Don’t go to meetings unless there’s a clear agenda for them. When you’re working, switch on a Pomodoro timer and refuse to do anything except the project you’re working on until the ‘bing.’ At lunchtime, go and eat a sandwich without trying to do anything else at the same time. When you’re with friends, pay attention to those friends. When you have a cup of tea, take a couple of minutes to enjoy your fucking tea. And hey, if you’re hungover, maybe throw a little rouge on. Not all samurai ideas are crazy.

HOMEWORK: This week, when you eat your lunch, you’re allowed to talk to other people – but don’t work, or watch TV, or read a book, or do anything else to distract you. The other ideas in the paragraph above: optional, but recommended. Live hard!


About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

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