The Multitasking Myth

Is multi-tasking a clever way to manage our time or is it counter-productive?

Whether its sending texts or emails when in a meeting, carrying on at the computer screens whilst taking a call or conducting intimate relations whilst speaking to a congressmen (if you happen to be a certain ex-president), we witness multi-tasking everywhere.  The seeming ability to multitask is almost de rigueur in our modern society and is undoubtedly on the increase. For the younger generation watching the TV, whilst texting, downloading music for the iPod and catching up with things on Facebook is fast becoming the norm. A 17 year old quoted in a recent study said; “I get bored if it’s not all going at once.”

Yet research is showing that multitasking is not all it may be cracked up to be. A UCLA experiment asked people to sort index cards whilst listening out for specific tones within randomly presented sounds. People’s brains accommodated this by shifting emphasis from the hippocampus, which looks after information storage and recall, to the striatum which handles repetitive tasks. So although the index cards were sorted, the subjects had more difficulty recalling what they had sorted.

There’s a similar effect in trying to take in information from too many sources at once. It’s only handled by skimming and potentially missing crucial detail and awareness. Curious that internet browsing is called “surfing” isn’t it – and skimming the surface is one definite symptom of multi-tasking.

Other and more alarming research has shown that multi-tasking boosts stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and results in a kind of biochemical friction which wears down our systems.

It is also a myth that multitasking is efficient. At the University of Michigan experiments revealed that for that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks. The “switching” time can take up to half of a second – which can make all the difference if you suddenly become aware of a hazard whilst driving and speaking on a mobile for example.

The message within all this is clear - resist the seemingly intuitive notion that doing several things at once will save time. It won’t, and furthermore, it will cause attention deficit – meaning something important will get missed.
Try practicing full attention span and mindfulness instead. Continuous time on most tasks is a lot more efficient and will reduce stress by reducing “brain friction”.


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