Myths of Multitasking

To me, people who profess to be excellent at “multitasking” are like people who claim to need little sleep – research shows it applies to less than 5% of the population, and 90% of the population believe they are part of that 5%.  Lest we think this is a trait we can pass down to our children, let’s be realistic and not set them up to try to achieve a level that does not exist.

Author’s note:  In full disclosure, the information from this post draws heavily from material in wikipedia, a 2008 story on NPR , an article from the Spring 2008 issue of The New Atlantis and other articles and links as noted in the post.  Also, I freely admit I am not a great multitasker, so perhaps this post is in defense of myself.

Multitasking is a term taken from computers which actually can receive an email messages while a Word and/or Excel document is open, and the user is browsing the web. Computers with multi-core processors can in fact perform multiple tasks at the same time.

While we would like to believe that we are smarter than computers (and I still believe that we are), we do not share the same processor.  The human brain, unlike a multi-core processor, can really only do one thing at a time.  Yes, it can move very quickly between different tasks, but research has proved even when you think you are multi-tasking you are actually only performing one function at any given time.  And, when you try to share you attention among several tasks, the brain becomes confused in trying to decide where to put its focus.

One researcher, psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell (author of the book, Crazy Busy) described multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”  Other studies have shown it is difficult, if not impossible, to learn new information while multitasking.  Not surprising, studies with students have shown a negative correlation between multitasking and academic performance.  Activity on Facebook, in particular, has been cited as having a negative correlation on academic performance.

A workplace study showed that people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQs.  What is the impact of a 10-point drop?  The same as losing a night of sleep (oh, that’s right, you’re in that 5% of the population that doesn’t need sleep).

Each time you switch from one task to another, thinking that you are multitasking, you actually lose time – as much as a 40% drop in productivity according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  Its the illusion of being effective at the real expense of efficiency, which causes great stress.  On some level, I think many of us realize this – we try to do so many things and yet it seems there is still so much more to do.  I can’t tell you how many times I find half-written emails at the end of the day or items in draft that I thought I sent, but never completed.

Our children watch us and copy our behavior.  We talk on the phone while driving, maybe even respond to an email or text. We are on the phone or checking email at their events or while on holiday.  Are we setting an unstated expectation that they should be able to do the same when research disproves this?  And, they have even more distractions than we do.

For a week, practice uni-tasking or concentrating on one thing at a time.
Put your focus only on one thing at a time and finish the task you started -or- leave it in a deliberately unfinished state (meaning you will pick it up at a predictable spot).   And, encourage your children to do the same.  Just see if it feels any different.  My guess is after the initial shock and fatigue from restraining yourself, you will feel the calm of completion and perhaps a lower level of stress. At a minimum, let’s encourage our children to develop good habits by focusing on one thing at a time.

Here’s a great post from Peter Bregman on his week without multitasking (and, the response in support of multitasking from David Silverman.

And, in a remarkable coincidence of timing, my sister posted this HBR blog on Facebook which is self-explanatory in the title “The Magic of Doing One Thing at at Time.”  Speaking to me directly, perhaps, the author notes the stress we all feel from trying to do too much at once and the resultant lack of productivity.

Here are links to other sources on the topic also used in putting together this post:

The self deceiving assumption of effective human multitasking.

Multitasking doesn’t work from Workplace Psychology

Multitasking Results in Poor Grades


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