The Myth of Multitasking

Have you ever seen a job description in which one of the requirements is multitasking? I’ve often asked myself, why not also require the applicant to fly, or have x-ray vision, or have superhuman strength? Those things are just as impossible as multitasking.

Multitasking is a myth. Worse, it’s a lie foisted on those who are so desperate to accomplish more with less time that they end up doing just the opposite, they spend more time getting less done.

We human beings can focus our attention on only one task at a time. We might be able to perform certain unconscious motor activities while our attention is focused elsewhere, such as standing and chewing gum at the same time, but we cannot focus our undivided attention on two things at once. Whenever we try we’re not really focused on anything.

For example, have you ever been on a telephone call when the person on the other end suddenly seemed distant or distracted? You couldn’t see what he was doing, but if you listened carefully you could hear an occasional mouse click or a gentle tapping on the keyboard. Suddenly, you realized that he was doing his email while you were talking. He probably thought he was multitasking, but what he was really doing was withdrawing his attention from you so that he could do something he considered more important, while allowing you to drone on in the background. (Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side of that interaction, where you were the one who thought you were multitasking, but all you were really doing was missing what the other person had to say.)

Or have you ever been asked to present to a roomful of your colleagues or customers, and had one them pull out a cell phone while you were presenting, and start checking her email? If we give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she didn’t intend to be rude or dismissive, then she probably thought she was multitasking. She had convinced herself that she could maintain the thread of your presentation while she was knocking off a few emails. (Or perhaps you’ve been the one checking emails while someone you invited to your conference room or office was trying to communicate with you.)

Or maybe you’ve been riding in the car, or at the dinner table, having what you thought was a two-way conversation, when the person you were with suddenly started checking Facebook updates (or LinkedIn). No doubt if you had stopped talking, and told him you would wait for him to finish, he would have been flustered, perhaps even offended, as he hastened to explain that he really was listening to you. Except that he wasn’t.

Or have you ever been in a meeting when one of the “participants” was pecking away on a laptop or tablet? Again, she probably didn’t intend to be ignoring the meeting, and if you challenged her on it she would probably tell you she could do both, having convinced himself that she was a true multitasker. So next time you see that going on, ask the person a question that has to do with the context of the meeting. I guarantee she will have no idea what you’re talking about, because she was so busy “multitasking”. (Or perhaps you have been the one who was pecking away on one task while a meeting was going on around you, and you had no idea what you were missing. In fact, you probably assumed you hadn’t missed a thing.)

We live in an age of distraction. At every moment of every day, there are many things we could pay attention to, but only one that we can pay attention to. Meanwhile, the myth of multitasking would have us believe that we can pay attention to them all.

We can’t.

Those who are most successful are not multitaskers. They are the ones who give their undivided attention to their most important task, complete that, and move on to the next. They realize that so-called multitasking actually sacrifices productivity because it forces us to interrupt what we are doing, move to the next task, interrupt that, move to the next, and so on. While we might become so adept at this that we can create the illusion of multitasking, all we’re really doing is time slicing. We’re dividing our time and attention into ever finer slices, and spreading those out, inefficiently, across a range of tasks. Then, when we do finish something, we’ve taken longer to do so than we would have if we had simply concentrated on one task at a time, and probably not accomplished the task as well as we could have.

We know intuitively that this is true. Have you ever been interrupted in the middle of an important task? When the interruption was over, did you find that you had to waste a few moments, perhaps even a few minutes, trying to get back into the frame of mind you had before you were interrupted? Trying to reassemble the threads of your task and your thinking so that you could resume the level of performance you had before you were interrupted?

Every interruption costs us precious moments, and shatters our train of thought. We know this from intimate, personal experience. But interruptions are a part of life, and a part of our job, so we have to learn to deal with them.

Multitasking, on the other hand, is actually the process of introducing interruptions into our day, convincing ourselves of the illusion of productivity when in fact we are being less productive. And let’s not even talk about the stress we introduce into our lives by trying to keep multiple balls in the air. (By the way, have you ever wondered how a juggler accomplishes that illusion? She seems to be doing several things at once, keeping several balls in the air, or bowling pins, or whatever she happens to be juggling. Yet she’s actually doing only one thing at a time, doing each competently, and in a well-choreographed manner, before moving on to the next thing. She moves her undivided attention from one object to the next, grasping each and putting it back in the air with just the right amount of momentum, and in just the right location, before moving on to the next object. The moment her attention strays from the task at hand, she starts dropping things.)

Our urge to multitask can be so strong that it becomes an addiction. We begin to feel uneasy if we aren’t trying to do at least two things at once. We begin to live in a self-inflicted state of attention-deficit disorder because there is so much going on around us, so much to be done, so little time to do it, and we are surrounded by those who seem to be multitasking, never realizing that they are merely illusionists who, like magicians, appear to be doing something they are not.

If you’d like to get more done in less time, I mean really get more done in less time, rather than simply succumbing to the illusion of doing so, here are some worthwhile resources:

Time Management Fundamentals, with Dave Crenshaw

Overcoming Procrastination, Brenda Bailey-Hughes

Getting Things Done, with David Allen

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