The Myth of Multitasking

| September 11, 2014

Conceptual image of business woman without head and daily routinIn one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

Today, we live in a world of multitasking. It is considered a skill which can be learned and developed; and also as an indispensable part of living in our technology driven society. Business seems to demand the ability to talk on the telephone, read email, and handle interruptions all at the same time. But now medical, scientific, psychological, and societal experts are coalescing around the opinion that multitasking is really a myth – and an expensive myth if you allow yourself to believe in it.

On the one hand, people have always multitasked. We define idiocy by whether you “can walk and chew gum at the same time?” But we also know that trying to do two things at once creates unavoidable distraction and deficiencies in performance if attention is needed – for example there are now laws to prevent people from driving and texting at the same time. Where is the line where multitasking stops being necessary and profitable, and starts being inefficient and even dangerous?

Multitasking is possible if at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or conscious thought is necessary to engage in the task. Otherwise, you are never really engaging in two tasks at the same time. Rather than multitasking, you are actually serial tasking – that is you are in fact shifting from one task to another in rapid succession. It is happening so quickly that you think you are doing the tasks simultaneously, even though you are really doing them distinctly.

It turns out that this is a very inefficient way to work. Some consultants believe that time blocking and single tasking (that is setting aside time to do one task) makes you four times more productive than the multitasking that is now the standard fare of the work day.

This is because when you shift from one task to another and back again, the transition is neither fast nor smooth – what is called the “Psychological Refractory Period.” According to the American Psychological Association’s research, there is a lag time during which your brain must pull itself away from the first task to focus on the second, and then the third, and then back again to the first — especially if one task is complex. It is like trying to drive by hitting the accelerator, then the brake, then the accelerator, then the brake. As John Medina, author of Brain Rules says: “To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

In addition, there is evidence to suggest that multitasking leads to the release of adrenaline, and so may even be addictive.

In 2006, the Kaiser Family Foundation published a study on the effects of multitasking. The picture that emerges from the study is a society that has become extremely impatient. We are unsatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence. We need to fill the gaps, even if those gaps are just seconds.

The National Academy of Sciences reported research in 2009 on the cognitive effect of multitasking. The study compared two control groups: one who was chronically heavy multitaskers and the other were light multitaskers. The results “showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” In other words – the heavy multitaskers had become deficient at the very purpose supposedly at the heart of multitasking.

If this is the case, then what should we do to work most efficiently? The best answer seems to be changing our work and home environments to allow time for quiet and focused attention. Isaac Newton said that “if I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been due more to patient attention than to any other talent.” Or to paraphrase Yogi Berra “you can observe a lot by watching.”

This means intentionally minimizing distractions and consciously setting aside time each day for productive, contemplative attention to the most important issues of the day. This is hard to do in a business world where people send you an email and expect an immediate answer – and then telephone to make sure you have gotten the email. But changing our work environment to minimize distractions, and having the judgment to know what is really urgent and what can wait, will make for more productive work days, a more profitable business, and a healthier work experience. In the words of Solomon: Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a grasping for the wind.” Ecclesiastes 4: 6.

Category: Lifestyle