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The myth of multitasking

Silvia de Ridder
February 1, 2013

Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now: obviously you are reading this article, but chances are good that you are also doing several things at once. Perhaps you’re also listening to music, texting, eating, or checking your email in another browser. You are multitasking!

I was interested to learn that the term ‘multitasking’ originated in the computer engineering industry. It refers to the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously. According to Wikipedia, the first published use of the word ‘multitask’ appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360 in 1965. So if a computer can do it, why can’t we humans?

There is a common belief that we can do more than one task at the one time, speak on the phone and prepare an email; eat and work and so on. The bad news is however that the human brain is not wired to multitask. All of these tasks to our brain are cognitively complex and counter to our wishes; we cannot do both at the same time.

When you’re on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you’re actually switching back and forth between them, since there’s only one mental and neural channel through which language flows. One complicated task requires all your attention, therefore trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks simply does not work.

Why do we try to multitask?
Research into multitasking and why we engage in such an activity has found that it is very much related to how it makes us feel. Multitasking makes us feel good. People who multitask are not being more productive—they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work. We get a great feeling of fulfilment and we feel incredibly efficient.

Another study found that multitasking relates very much to the perception we give to others, that is multitaskers seem very efficient from the outside, so we want to be like them. We see someone who can juggle emailing, doing phone calls and writing a blog post on the side and feel ‘wow’, that is incredible. I want to be able to do that too! So, unknowingly, we put a lot of pressure onto ourselves to juggle more and more tasks. And unfortunately, the case is exactly the opposite.

Impacts of multitasking
There are four primary effects of the myth of multitasking:

  1. The time it takes to complete things INCREASES.
  2. The quality of your work DECREASES.
  3. Your stress levels—and the stress levels of those around you—INCREASES.
  4. The quality of your relationships DECREASES.

While all of this seems unorthodox in a time-urgent world with ever decreasing attention span, consider the words of leading researcher on multitasking David Meyers. Meyer clearly states multitasking is “very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health”.

Even the most accomplished multitasker will ‘crash and burn’ trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong email; send a text to the wrong person, catch the wrong plane (as in one case he cited); have a ‘brownout’, in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a mobile phone.

When you’re driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you’re trying to also have a phone conversation, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving. You choose!

And when it comes to relationships, imagine waking up in the morning and saying to your significant other, “Good morning sweetheart, you’re unimportant, what are you going to do today?” Or answering the phone at work and say, “Good morning XYZ Company, where you are unimportant, how can I help you today?”

While I know you would never do this consider:

  • What is the message you are giving to another person when you are working on your computer or texting while attempting conversation?
  • How does it make you feel when someone does this to you?
  • What then does this behaviour ultimately do to your relationships?

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. Be conscious of when you multitask, allocate phone-free time, turn off those email popups or email for a set period, practice effective listening by giving someone your fullest attention, understand and appreciate the benefits to the wellbeing of yourself and others.

Silvia de Ridder
Silvia de Ridder is a qualified executive coach, project management specialist and an accredited consultant in emotional intelligence. As principal of Unconscious Potential, she helps individuals achieve their personal goals and helps leaders and organisations create and nurture high performing work cultures.
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