The Myth of Multi-Tasking
So you think you can do it all. In this fast paced world of ours with multiple demands flying at us from all sides and ever more tasks being loaded onto us, how can it be otherwise? We must be able to do several things at once; we must be able to multi-task.
And we do, don’t we? We speak on the phone, type a memo, check our e-mail, fill out a report and eat a sandwich all at the same time. Don’t we?
Well, not actually. What often appears to us to be multi-tasking is really just us working sequentially through several different tasks but instead of focusing on each one and working through to the end, we stop and switch, jumping back and forth, giving each a few moments of our attention, before switching again.
Multi-Tasking is Not the Same as Simul-Tasking
Multi-tasking is not the same as simul-tasking, nor is it as productive as we think. Research has shown that the human brain naturally functions sequentially. While it’s certainly true that we can do more than one thing at once – for example, we can walk and talk on our cell phones – we are really only concentrating on one thing at a time; the other thing we are doing is occurring without us thinking about it.
Ever had a situation where you are talking on the phone while doing a Google search on your laptop? While you’re casually scrolling through the results you are able to maintain a decent level of concentration, but then – bingo! – you discover what you’re looking for and you click on it. Now to see if this is really what you think it is, you have to focus on it. The next thing you know you’re saying to the person on the other end of the line, “Hold on. What was that again?” You’ve switched them off, so you can switch on your attention to the search results.
The Problems with Multi-Tasking
So what? Everything’s getting done. It’s just getting done in a different order. Right?
Maybe, but here’s the rub. According to John Medina, author of the New York Times bestseller “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School”, studies have shown that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent more time to complete a task than someone who is able to focus on it.
That’s a considerable waste of time if you consider that when you are trying to do five things at once, each of which would take 10 minutes if you were concentrating on it, a total of 50 minutes, it now takes 75 minutes. You have just squandered 25 minutes in your effort to multi-task! What makes it all the more absurd is that the reason you are multi-tasking is to save time!
But it gets worse. Not only does multi-tasking waste time, it increases errors. A person who is constantly interrupting herself to jump back and forth to different tasks makes 50 percent more errors than a person who stays focused on a single task, and that can get stressful.
Multi-Tasking Can Create a Bottleneck in the Brain
Errors aren’t the only stressors when multi-tasking. A University of California study found that when switching from one task to another the brain needs time to reload. In that study office workers required an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions and get fully focused again. But that didn’t keep them from forging ahead trying to get as much done as possible. The result was what Psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan calls a bottleneck in the brain, a congestion of mental processes that can contribute to the release of stress hormones and lead to long-term health problems.
While there is some debate among scientists about what you can train your brain to do (for example, you have taught yourself to walk without thinking about it so that you can focus on talking on the cell phone) the general consensus is that any effort to master multi-tasking is not only misguided, it’s counter-productive. Better to focus on one task at a time, finish it, and move on, working sequentially through your duties. Your brain is going to work best that way because that’s the way it’s wired to work.
Joggler, Owen Morse