The Myth Of Multi-Tasking

It seems that all of us are so busy that we are forced to multi-task, doing 2 or more things at once. This is our attempt to expand time by jamming more things into each second. We believe that we can operate in parallel rather than in sequence, thus accomplishing more in less time.

Some folks take great pride in their alledged multi-tasking skills. As Bill Shakespeare put it, “What fools these mortals be.”

There is growing realization that when we attempt to multi-task, we are in fact simply operating in close sequence. The brain has to switch between areas of focus, and when it does, 2 things happen:

  1. According to a study by René Marois, a psychologist of Vanderbilt University, the brain exhibits a “response selection bottleneck” when asked to perform several tasks at once. The brain must then decide which activity is most important.
  2. The brain is forced to pause and refocus continuously as one switches between tasks.

Both of these operations take time; just a second or so—but time nonetheless. Ergo, our attempt to expand time is in fact undermined by multi-tasking.

A recent article in The Economist discussed this issue in the context of driving while talking or texting with a cell phone. The article brought up the fact that while we believe we are multi-tasking, we are in fact time-sharing, constantly switching from one task to another.

I suspect that in addition to saving us little or no time, there is another result: we do more things more poorly than if we were to focus on one thing at a time.

A 2008 story on NPR provided a reason: according to neuroscientist Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

When we think we are doing two things at once, according to Miller, we are in fact shifting our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. We think we’re paying attention to both, but in fact we’re not. We’re just switching very rapidly.

That occurs because tasks often use the same part of the brain, and so the tasks are competing for that brain space.

So the next time you have the urge to dial the phone while driving, talk on the phone while sending an e-mail or having a conversation while planning your vacation, take a moment to consider this alternative: take one thing at a time and give it your total focus.

Think of it as an experiment. See if it costs you any more time, and see if your results improve.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve been listening to iTunes as I’ve been writing this. Although I can’t remember any of the songs.



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