The Myth of Multitasking

Technology is meant to make our lives easier; indeed. It enables us to complete tasks with greater speed and efficiency. It is remarkable how the devices we use in our daily lives can complete all manner of different tasks simultaneously and this sort of multitasking is a good thing. However, us human folk are not computers and our brains are not meant to multitask when it comes to cognition and action.

I will put my hand up and confess that I am a reformed rubbish multitasker; as a tenacious sort, I gave it a good college try, but heaved a monumental sigh of relief when I finally gave it up. Like so many unsuspecting people, I got sucked into the multitasking vortex under the illusion that I could be super duper efficient and therefore free up eons of time to do other things. I am afraid that it just doesn't work that way.

Instead of being able to do two things well simultaneously, I toggled between doing two things badly. Nevertheless, I persevered. Hey, everyone else was allegedly doing it and I just figured I wasn't doing it right. Partial to a bit of research, I decided to put my 'Multitasking is a Myth' theory to the test. I observed others to collect data on behaviour and used my own inner experience and actions to understand the mechanics. I am by no means purporting this to be empirical evidence, but I am absolutely certain the average human can't multitask.

What it boils down to is this - each person can only pay full attention to one task at a time and attention is the key. Of course, there are things we can do on autopilot whilst giving most of our attention to something else, but you still can't complete two tasks simultaneously. Don't just listen to me. Try it. You'll see. Even if you could, the increased risk of error is inversely proportional-ish to the decrease in attention. Unlike computers, we have pesky thoughts, feelings and that thing called a nervous system that responds to both our internal and external worlds without us even realising it. We are unable to dynamically regulate or sustain the right level of attention to complete more than one task at a time. We can pay part-attention to things that don't require action but when we actually need to do something that requires concentration, our attention automatically shifts to the task that requires it most.

You want examples? I hear ya.

  1. Mark and I were in the car and he saw that the clock needed to be changed, as its now British summertime. He figured that he could change the clock and talk to me at the same time. He may have gotten away with it had the clock cooperated, but when it didn't he asked me to wait a minute as he needed to work out what was wrong. Clock 100% Sandi 0%.
  2. The person in my next example is only 15, so they will not be identified, and I have sworn to never reveal their identity to save them from embarrassment. Whilst attempting to walk and text at the same time, texting got his full attention and he ended up losing a bit of his tooth in a collision with a lamppost. I hadn't considered that multitasking could be dangerous.
  3. From my own experiences, I recall countless times when I asked folk to talk to me whilst I checked my emails and found my attention drawn to the content of an interesting email, having not taken in what the person was saying at all. Not only does this result in a #fail on the multitasking front, it is downright disrespectful to the other person. This insight has led to a no distraction rule when it comes to human interaction; if someone now asks to talk to me, it's just us. No computers, phones, no leafing through magazines and so on.

There is also another biggie that I discovered, which is the relationship between focus and attention. When I listen to music on my iPhone and am interrupted by an incoming call, when the call is over the music continues precisely where it left off. Alternatively, when people are interrupted whilst speaking or when oscillating between two tasks in an effort to multitask, returning to where you left off is not so simple. It requires focus, attention and concentration, and it takes time.

I also realised that multitasking requires holding transient information for two unrelated tasks in your working memory. Moreover, because things are constantly subject to change and unpredictability, what this whole pursuit of the elusive art of multitasking leads to is cognitive overload, stress and rubbish output, with the chance of actually enjoying what you're doing being negligible.

And so, I attempt to multitask no more. This is what is commonly referred to as a win win situation. The quality of my work is consistent, I complete tasks in less time, make fewer errors, am less stressed, enjoy even the most mundane tasks and, most importantly, give everything and everyone my full attention. Why did I ever think to do any less?

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  • Posted by Sonja

    This post resonates with me. I'm sure I'm burnt out not from too much work but from too much multitasking - years and years of it! I love your third example - I agree that interaction should be distraction-free! 08 Apr 2013 (5 years ago)

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