The Myth of Multitasking

Dad multitasking in the morningMultitasking is everywhere. People are texting while driving, e-mailing during meetings, talking on the phone while walking their kids, tweeting while watching TV and IMing while working. Many people even brag about their multitasking prowess.

But can we really do two, even three, things at once?  Research shows that we can’t really multitask.  Not well at least.

Way back in 2001, researchers at the American Psychological Association set out to find out if multitaskers are more efficient.  Their findings: multitasking isn’t more efficient; shifting mental gears wastes time. More recently, a group of researchers at Stanford University found that “(p)eople who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

While I’m tempted to multitask on a regular basis, I’m trying really, really hard to break myself of the habit. For example, I don’t check e-mail on my phone anymore.  It turns out that when I’m away from the office, I’m usually in my car or in a meeting.  I know I shouldnt’ check e-mail from the car, so I don’t.  And clients typically pay me to pay attention during their meetings, so I don’t check e-mail then, either.  I will take detailed notes on my laptop during a meeting but the note taking helps me process and organize the discussions and information.

And I try not to check e-mail while talking on the phone.  Talking on the phone requires a lot of my concentration, especially if I’m taking notes.  It’s really obvious when someone is not paying attention during a call and I don’t want to be that person.

I’m guilty of multitasking like any other busy professional, especially as a working mom.  But I’m trying really hard to just say NO! to multitasking.  How about you?  Are you a multitasker?  How does it work for you? How do you react when people around you multitask?

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Multitasking

  1. Yep, multi-tasking is out. Paying attention, focus and flow states are in! It’s funny you should mention about the emailing, I actually took the email widget off my phone about a month ago to stop checking my email so much during the day. No question, it is a bad habit. I would say having all those things accessible on your phone is a tool made to create a convenience, not an every-minute necessity. Just because I own a hammer that doesn’t mean I have to run around swinging it all day, looking for nails to drive that simply aren’t there. There was an article in the NYT a few months ago about the issue of executive attention, I’ll have to find it for you.

  2. I agree, paying attention and staying focused is important, especially in business.
    But, I think one’s ability to multitask is a function of how your brain has been trained to process over time. If the brain has been mostly functioning one track at a time, then that is what the brain thinks is the norm.

    My kids, (my 21 and 18 year old kids), are great multi-taskers. All through high school, they would be doing homework on the computer, IM popping every 10 seconds, computer game running in another window and playing a video game. I’m not kidding you. I remember walking into my son’s room and witnessing all this. I was pissed: “How can you concentrate on your homework with all that distraction. Turn everything off except your homework until you’re done!” In my mind, there was no way he could do his homework well if he was not focused (that’s how I was brought up).

    My son said to me: “Mom! Do I have bad grades? Am I not on the Honor’s List? None of my teachers have ever complained. So, what are you worried about?” I had to stop and think about that. I really couldn’t argue.

    My son said: “When my grades start to fall, then you can B@#%& at me”. All I could say was, “OK”. He graduated with honors. My daughter is the same way, even worsse. She also uses her cell to call and text. But, who am I to complain? Her grades are even better and she’s taking advanced classes.

    Don’t you think that if your brain is accustomed to performing and processing more than one task at a time, then the brain thinks that’s just the norm?

  3. I think that to an extent, multitasking prowess is a generational thing. As the youngest staff member in the office, I can multitask much better than most of my colleagues. I have noticed, however, that I tend to surf the Web or check e-mail on the phone with someone, and then I’m not really focused on either task, which isn’t fair to the other person. When I get home from work, I try to avoid turning on my computer so I can focus on more important things than Facebook, e-mail, blogs, Twitter and so on. (It’s really hard!) At work I multitask when performing minor duties such as e-mails that require a quick response and checking Web sites for potential material.

    Probably we all could benefit from focusing on one task at a time and doing away with multitask. I admit that when I see people on their iPhones or BlackBerries (I have neither) frantically scrolling, I roll my eyes and think, “Are you really that important?”

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