The Multitasking Mystique

Sunday, June 26, 2016

8:11 AM

More than ever before, the demands of our hyper-busy lives have forced us to acquire a skill commonly known as multitasking. Everyone claims they are performing it successfully. But they really aren’t.


Each time I hear someone say they are multitasking–usually one hears this uttered at work–I mentally sigh and roll my eyes. Here’s why. According to neuroscience research, attempting to multitask is a waste of time. It’s an illusion.

What we perceive as doing two or more things simultaneously is really alternating between doing those things within a certain time frame. It is not possible for the human brain to effectively perform a particular function while simultaneously performing a totally different one. It can only alternate giving its undivided attention between the different tasks it is commissioned to address.

Nowhere is the multitasking fallacy more obvious than with the preoccupation we have with the ubiquitous smartphone. This (roughly) 3″ by 6″ rectangle has made us all one-armed zombies. The new body profile of  the modern Homo sapien is of a smartphone being held and periodically gazed at while walking, driving, shopping, dating, playing sports, watching a movie or engaging in almost any other activity. And in every case I’ve ever witnessed, when the smartphone is engaged, everything else is disengaged. Thus, smartphone users fumble around at checkout, drift into the adjacent lane or fail to move at a green light,

It is accepted behavior to use the time spent in our vehicles to ‘multitask.’ After all, what better way to maximize our time than to conduct business or social obligations while transporting ourselves from one location to the other. Instead of this being ‘dead’ time, we make it useful time. All at the expense of performing the one task that, if not done well, could be fatal to us and others: driving safely.


We’ve all come to expect the delayed reaction of the driver in front of us when the traffic light turns green. Chances are good we may not even care because we are doing what they are doing: making use of the dead time by texting. Or scrolling on Facebook or Instagram. If you encounter a slow driver drifting out of his or her lane, what are the odds it is because his or her attention is diverted because they are looking at a smart phone? Pretty good, right? Sometimes it seems like the prerequisite for texting is that you must first get in your vehicle and go somewhere! I can’t count the times I’ve seen someone get into their car and within mere seconds of pulling out are looking at the phone, which is being held the entire time they are driving.


The point is, anything we do is at the exclusion of something else — either totally or in varying degrees. The most efficient way to accomplish anything is to give it 100 percent of our attention and brain power. To allow a second task to encroach on the attention directed at the first task detracts from our ability to perform either task efficiently. If we endeavor to add yet a third activity to the mix, performance efficiency is proportionately diminished.

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