Multitasking Is a Big Fat Lie

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Like many wired people, you probably take great pride in being a multitasker. You talk on your mobile phone, send e-mail, check the stock market online, and perhaps even read a letter and jot down notes for an upcoming meeting all at the same time (or so you think). Why do you multitask? Well, how else can you accomplish everything you need to get done (and still have time for a life!)? You believe you are the epitome of productivity and efficiency, getting so much done all at once.

There's one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking -- at least not the way you may think of it. The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the "technological-industrial complex" to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.

Understanding Multitasking

Multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously. But here's the catch. It's only possible if two conditions are met: 1) at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., driving) and 2) they involve different types of brain processing. For example, you can read effectively while listening to classical music because reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain. However, your ability to retain information while reading and listening to music with lyrics declines significantly because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.

What does this mean for all of you self-proclaimed multitaskers out there? Well, I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but it means that what you do isn't really multitasking. Despite appearances, you simply can't talk on the phone, read e-mail, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. In fact, when you think you're cruising along the information highway, you're actually stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over.

Serial Tasking

You and every other so-called multitasker are actually serial tasking. Rather than engaging in simultaneous tasks, you are in fact shifting from one task to another to another in rapid succession. For example, you switch from your phone conversation to a document on your computer screen to an email and back again in the belief that you are doing them simultaneously. But you're not.

Compelling Research

A summary of research examining multitasking on the American Psychological Association's web site describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. These findings have demonstrated that when you shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which your brain must yank itself from the initial task and then glom onto the new task. This shift, though it feels instantaneous, takes time. In fact, up to 40 percent more time than single tasking - especially for complex tasks.

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