The Delusion of Multitasking

March 26th, 2007 by

I was in an Asian restaurant last week, enjoying a meal with my extended family. At a nearby table, I noticed a dad with two young children, a boy about 6 and a girl about 4. The boy was leaning against his dad and gazing at the ground; the girl stared listlessly into space. Dad was scrolling through his emails on a Blackberry. I took in the scene briefly. When I glanced back, fifteen minutes later, the kids were still bored and restless and dad was still sorting through his electronic messages. Not a word had been spoken. In his mind, I suppose, dad was multitasking work and fatherhood. He was kidding himself. His real focus was on his work (or who knows, maybe his girlfriend); he was sitting at the table, but he had literally abandoned his kids.
Steve Lohr writes in the New York Times that multitasking is beginning to look like a delusion. There is emerging science that shows the brain is really unable to handle parallel tracks. We think we can manage more than one task at a time, but we are almost always switching back and forth. The brain shifts from one locus to the other. What’s lost is concentration and focus. We’re not everywhere at once. We are nowhere.
The article quotes David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan: “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”
Safety and Productivity
We have blogged the dangers of multitasking: specifically, the risks involved in the use of cellphones while driving. Beyond the safety issue, there is a significant issue of productivity. We think we can listen to music, respond to phone calls and emails, talk, think, write and get done what needs to be done. In fact, once distracted, it can take a long time to get our focus back. A study by Jonathan Spira at Basex estimates that 28 per cent of our time is spent on “interruptions and recovery” before returning to the main task.
Another study, involving Microsoft employees, showed that after responding to incoming emails or instant messages, it took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code. Employees took time to reply (to presumably less important matters) and then often shifted into browser mode, checking out the latest news, sports or entertainment Web sites.
Who’s In Charge?
The scientists – generally people with a formidable ability to focus – have a few recommendations for the rest of us.
– Check emails no more than once an hour (To which I would add, if you are with your family, shut off electronic devices at least for the duration of the meal)
– Listen to soothing background music if you must, but avoid music with lyrics, instant messaging or TV shows on your Ipod.
– When you get into your car, shut off the cell phone and focus on driving. You will have a better chance of avoiding a collision with the other (distracted) drivers
– Think of your mind as having one point of attention and choose your point wisely
The real challenge is to learn how to manage the ingenious technology that surrounds us, as opposed to allowing that technology to manage us. Sure, it’s great to be connected to everyone and everything at every moment. But these connections are meaningless when compared to the miracle of a simple moment in the company of colleagues, family and friends – in the presence, perhaps, of our children, who look into our eyes with the expectation and hope that they have our undivided attention.