The other night, my husband made the comment that he sucks at multitasking. I felt compelled to remind him that there ain’t no such animal. It’s a fallacy.
The idea that it is possible has been perpetuated by moms (the epitome of the attempt) all over the world. Women claim they are better at it than men. Men aspire to it. Employers laud it. But it’s a hopeless endeavor.
Studies have been done. Lots of studies. And they all say the same thing.
The human brain, whether male or female, can only do one thing at a time. Yes, it can switch between tasks, and it can do that very, very rapidly. But it can still only do one thing at a time.
And that’s not a bad thing no matter what your boss or your mom or your instructor might tell you. Most people agree that focus is a good thing. Concentration is a good thing too. Patently, “multitasking” is the antithesis of those things.
Research indicates that multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more emotionally satisfied with their work, thus creating an illusion of productivity.
Research also shows that multitasking, i.e. trying to do two cognitive things at the same time, simply can’t be done. The mind doesn’t work that way. Even trying to parallel path a cognitive activity (let’s say adding a column of numbers in your head) and a more automatic activity (like brushing your teeth) doesn’t really work. More often than not, you would just end up counting the strokes on your teeth and if by some chance you managed to work your way to the end of the column of numbers, it’s very unlikely that you would end up with the correct sum. And that’s why the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.
Switching between tasks, despite how fast it occurs, is incredibly unproductive in reality. In fact, research (yes, I’m using that word a lot) indicates up to 40 percent of productivity could be lost due to task-switching. It actually takes more time to complete the tasks you’re switching between and you make more errors than when you focus on doing one task at a time in order.
The reason is that every time you switch to a new task and then go back to the former task, you spend a certain amount of time refreshing your memory about where you were with that previous task and reminding yourself where you need to go with it. And if the first task was really complicated, there’s a good chance that you will have to start completely from scratch. I’ve experienced this.
Studies (see, I can use a different word) have shown that it takes four times longer for the brain to recognize new things (further slowing down task completion) and that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn while we are multitasking.
But, the brain craves new things. The brain gets a dopamine jolt from new things. So, in reality, our brains are set up to crave a situation where we have a couple different things going at the same time.
I feel this, myself, from time to time when I am working on a crochet project. There comes a point where I just want to finish and move on to the next one … or heaven forbid … start the next one concurrent with one I’m already working. Mostly, I succeed at working on the one project to completion. But not always. And I know for certain I make more errors because of it. You’d think that all the times I’ve had to pull something apart and do it over correctly would have taught me something. Well, maybe it has.
My husband has a job where he is likely to be interrupted just about all the time. He’d really like to focus on one thing and finish it before moving onto the next, but the job just isn’t set up that way and is not likely to ever be set up that way. It’s the nature of customer service oriented businesses. So even though his job is medical and has discrete appointments, it still works out that he has to switch tasks constantly throughout his day. Contrary to the claims of some of the studies conducted, this does not create for him a feeling of satisfaction and productivity. Rather, it makes him feel as if he can’t ever get anything done.
The next time you try to do more than one thing at a time, I’m pretty sure that it will likely take you longer than had you done them sequentially. And there is a good chance that one or both of the tasks will end up botched.
But because of the basic nature of the human animal, I’m also pretty sure that people will keep trying to multitask.
So, while you are out there trying to juggle ten balls at the same time, keep in mind that there is a good chance they will all come crashing down around you … because … there is no such thing as multitasking.