Is Multitasking a Myth?

| By Editorial Staff

You walk and chew gum at the same time. Tap your head and rub your belly without pause. Heck, you even listen intently to your friend or spouse while hammering away on your smartphone.

Clearly the evidence speaks for itself: multitasking is no myth. In fact, you know that multitasking is real because, well, you’re a master at it, right? It says so right there on your résumé: “Excels at multitasking.”

So there you have it, right there in print. Multitasking isn’t a myth. Except, maybe it is.

We live in a world where doing two things at once is the norm

The average person carries in his pocket a computer more powerful and versatile than people 30 years ago could ever dream of even existing. It’s no wonder people find themselves doing two things at once all time – on the surface it seems so easy.

In fact, multitasking is a draw for employers. If you can handle two tasks at once, you save time and money for the company. Everybody wins!

Alas, it’s not that easy. In reality, you’re likely not doing yourself (or your friends, family, coworkers or bosses) any favors by crowning yourself King or Queen of Multitasking. Research suggests that multitasking not only is a myth, but also makes you far less productive than if you just focused on one task at a time.

Not multitasking, but task switching

Author Guy Winch, PhD (who wrote Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries) coined the term “task switching” because, based on his own studies, our concentration and attention can only focus on one thing at a time. Whatever task we’re working on at the moment will consume the majority of our mind’s capabilities, leaving little room for anything else other than automatic behaviors (like walking and chewing gum).

This art of task switching actually slows us down, Winch says, because our attention is expended on the act of constantly switching gears back and forth. In other words you never fully get in the zone of either task you’re working on.

As a result, you’re more likely to take longer to finish two projects simultaneously than you would if you finished each separately. A 2008 University of Utah study showed that this slow-down occurred even in automatic behaviors, like driving. Drivers in the study took longer to reach their destinations when they were on their cell phones than when they simply focused on driving. The American Psychological Association estimates that task switching can cause as much as 40% loss in productivity, and is more likely to cause you to introduce errors into your tasks (like if you ever accidentally wrote down something that was being said on the radio or TV).

Does multitasking rob you of creativity?

Creative-minded people often pride themselves on their ability to jump from one task to another. This sporadic approach to work fuels their fire, or so they say. Science suggests otherwise.

According to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago, multitasking eats up our “working memory,” which is a temporary brain storage. When that storage is used up, it takes away from our ability to think creatively.

Are we creating a world of attention-deficient people?

There seems to be endless support for the notion that multitasking is a myth. But all the proof in the pudding isn’t going to change your view, is it?

We didn’t think so. You’ll still answer emails while finishing that report. You’ll still shop online while taking that business call. Technology not only affords you that right, it downright encourages it.

But all of this overstimulation might have long-term ill effects on our brains. Yes, technology may be damaging our brains, but it has nothing to do with lasers. Constantly jumping around from task to task (particularly for younger people, whose brains are still forming) prevents the brain from being able to focus on a single task well. Dr. JoAnn Deak, an educator and psychologist who wrote Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, calls this the rifle syndrome, where the mind wants to jump around a lot.

Worse yet, Deak says that the more that young, developing minds jump around, the more stimulated the brain gets from this activity. In other words, the act of jumping from one task to another will be associated with pleasure. As a result, tasks that don’t result in rapid and repeated task switching (like listening to a teacher talk, or focusing on one project) will become boring … even more so than they are now.

Have you given up on multitasking yet?

After all of these science-based scare tactics, have you now gone back and deleted the word “multitasker” from your résumé? Likely not. The idea that you can handle more than one thing at once is still very attractive, isn’t it? But consider approaching each task differently next time. Focus on one job at a time, and see if you get the job done more quickly and creatively. This new approach might not only make you more productive, but it might just save your brain from a life sentence of ADD.