The Myth of Multi-tasking

The Myth of Multi-tasking

As I sit down to write this article, I adopt my usual strategy of turning on the radio – always ABC classic FM, no ads, no talking, just music. It’s there in the background, soft and low, not intruding on my thoughts, but somehow contributing to them. As I write, I don’t really hear the music, but it’s present and important.

As soon as the 12.00 interview commences, off goes the radio. With apologies to Margaret Throsby (who I do love), I can’t listen to the interview and write my article. If I’m focused on my writing, I miss almost the entire segment. If I tune in to the interview (which is hard not to do if it’s on), I can’t write. This is nothing about me, it’s the way the brain works. It’s impossible for us to attend to more than one complex cognitive task at the same time.

The problem is, we think we can. And with the accessibility to mobile and portable technology, the problem is escalating. We think we can sit in a meeting and pay attention to what’s going on whilst checking our emails. We think we can send a text whilst talking to someone on the phone. We think we can do our homework in front of the TV. But evidence from psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience tells us we can’t, and if we try we’re only making ourselves less efficient and less effective – the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

We can only do two tasks at a time when they are very simple, and are not competing with each other for the same mental resources required for processing information, planning, learning, memory etc. We can make the kids lunch whilst mentally preparing a shopping list, or hold a conversation whilst driving a car on autopilot. But add something more complex to the equation, such as navigating complicated traffic conditions in an unfamiliar city, and you’re soon asking your chatty travel companion for a bit of peace so you can concentrate on the road.

When we think we’re multitasking, what we’re actually doing is mentally micro-switching back and forth between two or more activities. This is problematic for three reasons.

Firstly, each activity takes longer because of the delay caused by the intrusion of the other activity, and because of the time it takes to reorient back to the first activity each time you make a mental shift from one thing to the other.

Secondly, mental fatigue increases significantly due to the additional cognitive resources required for continually focusing, shifting and refocusing on alternative tasks. And increased mental fatigue will often lead to a decreased attention span and more mistakes.

Third, when our attention is divided, we simply don’t take in as much information, or remember what we do take in.

So next time you’re frantically multi-tasking to save time, stop and ask yourself if you really are being as smart as you think. How would you feel if your pilot was Facebooking or your orthopaedic surgeon was texting on the job? And if you really don’t believe me, try counting backwards from 100 in multiples of 7 whilst driving your car through an obstacle course. Or perhaps just try listening to the midday interview whilst composing your next newsletter.

If you want to maximise your potential, stick to one mentally complex task at a time. You’ll be faster, less depleted and make fewer mistakes.

Need help getting some balance back in your life, or learning how to focus on one task at a time for greater performance? Call or email me  to discuss how individual coaching can help you or your staff get more efficient and effective.