mul·ti·task·ing : the performance of multiple tasks at one time.
I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can even cook pasta, meatballs, and marinara sauce simultaneously, while holding a baby in one arm and keeping him entertained. What I can’t actually do is multitask.
Our brains can’t really “perform” more than one task at a time. If the brain is activated for a specific duty, it can’t fully attend to a second one—it has to slow down for both. This doesn’t apply to mundane, combined activities like walking and chewing gum, both of which are relatively automatic and do not require concentration. When people talk multitasking, they’re not usually referring to automatic, thought-free functions like walking or eating. Rather, they claim to be able to perform multiple tasks requiring focus, like emailing while talking on the phone, driving while reading a map, or texting while attending to a meeting or lecture.
The latest research shows that people do not truly multitask, or perform multiple tasks requiring focus simultaneously. Instead, they attempt rapid switching between tasks. That’s what happens when I cook a complete spaghetti dinner. I may have pasta, meat, and sauce on the burners at the same time, but I’m not actually attending to all three at once. The process is more of a sequence, which follows like this: boil water, simmer sauce, fry meatballs, smile at baby in my left hand, add pasta to water, stir sauce, stir meatballs, make face at baby again, stir pasta (making sure not to splash baby with boiling water), etc. until everything is cooked.
Media multitasking involves switching between monitors, phones, handheld devices, and live audiences. Again, someone who is attempting to talk on the phone and type on the computer simultaneously will not actually accomplish both, but will alternate attention between one task and the other, creating a sequence of phone conversation, email, phone , email, etc.
Despite the high value people tend to put on media multitasking, it’s really not something to brag about, because people who attempt this are actually less productive and create lower quality work. They also suffer more stress, become distractible, develop less reliable memory, lose track of thoughts and ideas, experience social consequences, and even lose I.Q. points. These negative outcomes do not improve with practice, either, but actually become more severe with repetition.
Let’s call multitasking what it really is
At best, it’s juggling, and not the Cirque du Soleil artistic variety, but the Santa Monica Promenade street performer version, i.e. please don’t catch that knife on the wrong end kind of juggling. At worst, this behavior is a conscious decision to allow constant interruptions, with predictable, negative consequences.
Imagine the alternative…
You’re working on a task, and you continue until it’s complete. You may have received several emails or texts during that time, but you continue uninterrupted, because you have turned off all tones and vibrations. You don’t worry about those incoming messages, because you are focused on the task in front of you and have committed yourself to completing it. Besides, you have already scheduled a block of time to check and return messages, and because you do this on a consistent basis, no one expects you to instantly respond to them. (Note: this may not apply if emergency response is part of your professional role).
Finally, you complete your task with a high level of quality, and feel satisfaction. After a minute to catch your breath and reboot yourself, you check your messages and emails, and spend little time discarding the 75% of them that are junk. When you reply to the meaningful ones, you give them your full attention, which the recipients notice and appreciate.
Isn’t this a better way to work?