The Myth of Multitasking

Everyone once in a while, I think each of us know something instinctively that goes against conventional wisdom.  Multitasking is something I have always believed was pretty much a myth.  I have never believed that we can do numerous things at once and do them well.  I’m so glad to see this article and I hope people (especially those who supervise others) get the message…..MULTITASKING IS A MYTH.

How often have we all seen employment ads looking for a multitasker?  Every time I sees those I realize that the employer has unreasonable expectations and that employer is bound for disappointment.

An article in the New York Times Magazine in 2001 asked, “Who can remember life before multitasking? These days we all do it.” The article offered advice on “How to Multitask” with suggestions about giving your brain’s “multitasking hot spot” an appropriate workout.

But more recently, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge. Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The psychologist who led the study called this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity. One of the Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas” for 2007 was Linda Stone’s notion of “continuous partial attention,” which might be understood as a subspecies of multitasking: using mobile computing power and the Internet, we are “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing.”

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has written a book with the self-explanatory title CrazyBusy, has been offering therapies to combat extreme multitasking for years; in his book he calls multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In a 2005 article, he described a new condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” which he claims is rampant in the business world. ADT is “purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,” writes Hallowell, and its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD. “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” Hallowell argues, and this challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.” Limiting multitasking is essential. Best-selling business advice author Timothy Ferriss also extols the virtues of “single-tasking” in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

Multitasking might also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking—information overload—costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.


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8 Responses to The Myth of Multitasking

  1. Wizcon says:

    There was a show on WPR last week on this. They found the mulittaskers accomplished less the the non multitaskers. Personally, I think its a form of dementia. We have all gotten the email about the guy going to do something and getting distracted until at the end of the day, he has a whole slew of unfinished tasks and no idea about what he did all day.

    Sage Reply:

    I know that when I get interrupted with what I’m doing and lose my train of thought and momentum it takes a while to get it back. I think this is a great article that employers should be seeing and “getting”.

  2. AliSilver says:

    LOL@ “the four hour work week” . I’m just going to guess ,that that means, workers because of multitasking and other distractions, only get four hours of GOOD HARD thinking time on the clock in a 40 hour week? It sounds interesting enough to almost buy the book and see what’s up !
    I know multi tasking is a myth because if my kids interrupt me when I’m on a business call, I immediately have no clue what EITHER one is saying !
    Another thing, semi related is lack of sleep. People think they can ‘manage on 5 hours’ of sleep or something and I know they are possibly going through the motions, but they are NOT managing . In Japan, I think, the workers all have afternoon naps at some companies. It’s like PART of the job. They say that after the nap they are much more productive. So a half hour or 1 hour nap increases productivity SO MUCH afterwards, it’s more beneficial than the sluggish workers trying to get through the day when they are tired and ready to go home. GENIUS !

    Sage Reply:

    I wondered if it was just me who took awhile to get back on track when I’m interrupted but I guess not. It’s nice to know that is at least one instance where I’m not weird.

    I love naps! As you all know, I’m a night owl and it’s so frustrating not to be able to get to sleep when I’m tired.

  3. Al says:

    Hello Sage,

    It’s been awhile, but saw the following link… and thought of you and remembered that you may have had a few posters from the Wisconsin area…hopefully they were not in harms way.

    Meanwhile, thanks for posting another one of your thought-provoking posts, and have to agree with you that where multi-tasking may lead to lots getting done, it’s usually not done as well for lack of full attention and effort on a specific task.

    Hope all is well. Have a great week!

    Sage Reply:

    Hi there Al. Long time no see. Thanks for that link. I hope everyone is safe….I hate tornadoes.

    Wizcon Reply:

    @Sage, I am well away from that area. We have had severe storm warnings all day though.

    Sage Reply:

    I’m glad you are well away from the area. Tornadoes are so scary. I’d rather deal with a hurricane any day.

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