Computers are designed to multitask, but the human brain is not. Multitasking is a myth, and thinking you can do it all can lead to problems.
Somehow, over the past two decades, we’ve convinced ourselves that we can’t get it all done unless we do it all at once. Well, we’re wrong.
A growing body of research has shown that when we try to perform too many tasks at once, we not only do a worse job on each of them but we actually take longer to complete them. At the same time, we often put ourselves–and others–at risk.
The concept of multitasking is not new, as any mother who’s tried to balance child care with housework could tell you. But the modern version of it is.
It evolved in the 1980s with the advent of home computers that had operating systems designed to multitask–that is, to run multiple programs such as email, the Internet, and Tetris all at the same time. Multitasking quickly became the model both for busy moms and the corporate world, and by the time massive layoffs hit North America in the 1990s, it had become a way of life.
The problem, of course, is that while computers are designed to multitask, the human brain is not. Even though it comprises billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, it’s simply not designed to concentrate on two things at once.
In 2001 researchers at the University of Michigan identified a process called executive control, which the brain uses to switch between activities such as talking on the phone and browsing a website. The researchers also found that when their subjects switched tasks, they lost both speed and accuracy.
Further studies have since found that most people can easily perform two sets of highly practised skills such as walking and chewing gum. But the more complex or unfamiliar the tasks, such as talking on a cellphone and driving a car, the longer it takes and the more difficult it becomes to switch between them. In those cases, even a fraction of a second could mean the difference between life and death.
Studies have also found that the people who are worst at multitasking are the very old and the very young.
Surprisingly, that includes those media-savvy teens labelled “Generation M,” who, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports, manage to cram eight and a half hours of media exposure a day into six and a half hours of media use, thanks to multitasking.
Now experts are sounding the alarm about the effects of long-term multitasking.
It can, they say, cripple our ability to remain focused and study things in depth. It can reduce quality, cause accidents, and cost money, as much as $650 billion a year according to one American estimate. It can lead to fatigue, stess, and burnout, and it can irreparably damage personal relationships.
Even computers can’t keep multitasking indefinitely. The more applications that are up and running, the slower your computer gets until eventually, it crashes–just like you will if you don’t stop the multitasking madness.
10 Timely Tips
Getting off the multitasking treadmill is no easy task, but it’s essential if we want to live fully and authentically in the moment. Here’s how:
- Don’t manage your time; manage yourself. Use the same skills you would use in managing others–planning, organizing, and delegating.
- Set goals and spend time each day on the things that are important to you, not urgent to other people.
- Make time to do nothing but recharge your batteries.
- Identify your time stealers and stop them in their tracks.
- Stop the interruptions. Respond to email and voice mail, at most, once an hour.
- Get organized. Create a task list. Declutter your desk.
- Never drive and talk on the cellphone at the same time, even if it’s hands-free.
- If you’re doing something that requires concentration, turn off the television and avoid listening to music with lyrics.
- Get help. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books, seminars, and websites offering advice on how to manage your time.
- Just say no. It may be the most important word you ever use.