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The Myth of Multitasking

Why “Doing it All” May be your Undoing

We often describe our attempts to be productive while engaging multiple objectives as “multitasking.” Yet this description is not only inaccurate, but it may even be perpetuating behaviors that will hinder your success.

“Multitasking” was coined originally as a computer term, describing the ability of processors to handle (or appear to handle) more than one function at a time. True multitasking for computers was not achieved until the advent of the dual processor (followed by the multi-processor), which allowed different components to independently perform dedicated tasks.

When it comes to human cognition, however, we don’t have multi-processors. Conscious thought is a singular experience. We cannot compartmentalize our brains to work two different problems at once, or simultaneously perform independent tasks.

Attempts to multitask have led, in many cases, to lower productivity, poor quality of work, marginal safety standards, and, in some cases, disaster. Research has proven in hundreds of examples that our attempts to multitask, even with relatively simple tasks, cause disruptions that often lead to mistakes. Or, at the very least, “attention” is diminished to a minimum, as we are merely skimming the surface of understanding. On our roadways, where this issue has received widespread concern, it has been proven that a “distracted driver” attempting to use a cell phone is equally impaired as an intoxicated person past the legal limit of alcohol consumption.

So what are you doing when you “think” you are multi-tasking?

Here are three different strategies we employ in our attempts to accomplish this impossible task.

Alternating

This is the most common and easily implemented strategy we use to attempt multitasking. Think of the example of a circus performer spinning multiple plates at once, handling one for a moment, then the next, continuing to give short “bursts” of attention to a problem, then moving on. Another example is the restaurant cook who is handling multiple pots, pans, and dishes, trying to time the preparation of each item to deliver a complete meal.

In this case, we are switching our conscious focus quickly from one area (or idea, or task) to another, and then back again, in an effort to keep up with multiple demands for our attention. Scientific American magazine published the research from Neuron Journal’s study that “mapped” the brains of humans engaged in multitasking. The study proved that we literally switch on different areas of the brain to process one request, then switch them off while we stimulate another, separate area to handle a different task. In the course of a day, we literally perform this function thousands of times, as we process various stimuli and handle unexpected interruptions.

While this may be a fine, and even necessary strategy for handling some tasks, like those in our examples, this is a terrible strategy for handling complex problems or tasks that require in depth thought or concentration. Too often, we engage in “self-sabotage” by introducing interruptions or starting multiple tasks, when we would be far more effective sticking with the one important task or thought process required. In fact, studies consistently find that attempts to multitask increase (often double) the time required, as opposed to handling two tasks sequentially.

Automation

With this strategy, a person performs two tasks at once. However, one of those tasks has been learned and rehearsed to the point that it no longer requires conscious attention. It has become rote, or automatic. Consider the example of the performer who plays guitar while singing a song or (in my personal case) when I juggle knives while riding a six foot tall unicycle. In these instances, the apparent “multitask” is not two new and independent processes, but the result of a great deal of effort and practice.

The strategy is that one of the tasks (in these examples, the guitar and the unicycle, respectively) has been learned to the point of “unconscious competence.” It no longer requires complete attention to execute these tasks. It has become “automatic.” They can be performed easily with a sort of “relaxed observance” to the tasks. At the same time, the performer is dedicating a far greater degree of attention to the other aspect involved (singing or knife juggling).

Many people employ automation regularly while driving. We may have accumulated a tremendous amount of experience behind the wheel and have learned to perform the primary functions of driving with the relaxed concentration of nearly “automatic pilot.” This is especially true when we are driving a familiar route, such as your daily commute. So, we slip into this mode, seemingly “freeing up” our conscious mind to engage other tasks.

The problem and danger results because “automatic mode” is not sufficient to handle the complex demands of driving. When a car pulls out in front of us, our reaction time is impaired. Or, when the secondary task pulls our focus or vision, we drift into the adjacent lane. Clearly, this is a terrible way to operate a vehicle.

Synthesis

One other strategy involves blending, or synthesizing, two (or multiple) tasks into one. A synthesized task is not two independent parts, but a singular goal and objective that involves various components. For example, consider a professional golfer making a swing at a ball. To perform this task, there are many, separate aspects that are happening simultaneously (weight shift, arm movement, hip and shoulder rotation) to take the club back and then swing it forward to the ball. The timing and sequence of these aspects must be impeccable to achieve the intended result. The way the mind processes this demand, however, is not as many independent tasks, but as one task – swinging the club.  Another example from sports: A tennis player, in order to execute a shot, must simultaneously run to the ball, prepare the racket, decide on a target, adjust feet and body position, and then hit the ball. There are many synthesized aspects to the task.

Performing synthesized tasks requires an in-depth proficiency of each aspect involved, as well an understanding of the relationship between each aspect to the other. Also, this requires a great deal of practice. This may be a useful way to solve a complex problem. First seek to understand each aspect individually. Then, investigate the interrelationships of each component to one another.

Into Action

  1. Become conscious of when you slip into the modes of Alternating, Automating, or Synthesizing. Ask yourself: “Is this intentional or reflexive? Is it helpful or hindering?”
  2. For important tasks, cultivate the discipline to stay focused on one task at a time.
  3. In all things, especially while driving or performing other complex tasks, place safety as your highest priority.

Wishing you tremendous success in all you do – one thing at a time,

Dan

 

  • Stan Molinski says:

    Dan:
    I saw one of your “performances” in Albany, NY while working for the state of NY. You were, AWESOME! Your DVD offer “No Limits” looks really good. I currently work for a CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community) in Westchester County, NY called Kendal on Hudson. We’re one of 13 CCRC’s affiliated with the Kendal Corporation with locations in the northeast section of the US. Do you offer seminars for mature adults?
    Best Regards,
    Stan Molinski
    sfmolinski@yahoo.com

  • While I agree with you on how our brains function and what is best for productivity in most instances, our bodies and brains are evolving. Will it happen over night, never does. Will there be core pieces that stay the same – history shows it will.

    Does it mean we use this data to keep us from growing? Nah! While your brain does not perform at 100% when multi-tasking – by having attendees tweet gold nuggets for themselves and others ( not in attendance) during sessions, you are reinforcing the message delivered. They will only remember three things anyway ( more empirical data about that on brain absorption) so as a speaker I rather they really remember my three when they tweet it during my session. Spreading that knowledge and giving themselves a new level of retention.

  • Finally research is catching up to prove what men all over the world have known all along: Multi-tasking does not work! God created the entire Universe, but it was a focused effort each day.

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