Sunday, March 09, 2008


Picture from The Atlantic Monthly
Multitasking. This is a word coined originally to describe the way computers operate, but it soon spread to human behavior. (Merriam-Webster dates its first use as 1966.)

I've been hearing about, reading about, and seeing multitasking for years now. I've been doing it myself for a long time. In this technologically-driven age, I can do a bunch of things at once. I can read the newspaper, watch TV, answer e-mail, talk on the phone, file my nails, and give myself a pedicure while fending off a cat trying to nap on my computer keyboard. When my daughter was a tot, I did all those things plus try to entertain her so I could get some work done.

But just because I can do it, must I do it?

I've been longing more and more for a return to yesteryear. A return to the days when I did one, or at most two, things at a time. Maybe the reason my memory's failing and I can't concentrate isn't so much the hormone swings of menopause, or the natural aging process. Maybe I'm just trying to do too much. Maybe I need to concentrate on one thing at a time. I've lost the feeling of satisfaction I used to get from completing a task, because so often I feel that I could have done it better. Maybe I'm not performing as well because I'm doing too many things at once.

This conclusion, which I've reached more or less on my own, is supported by research.

In Is Multitasking More Efficient?, the American Psychological Association notes that "multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end....[T]his insight into executive control may help people choose strategies that maximize their efficiency when multitasking. The insight may also weigh against multitasking." Those conclusions are from a study reported in "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching," Joshua S. Rubinstein, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Atlantic City, N.J.; David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, Vol 27. No.4.

I downloaded the original article from the APA website, but discovered it was easier to read about it in "Study: Multitasking is counterproductive" on CNN .com, which summarized the findings and also had good comments from the authors.

In "The Autumn of the Multitaskers," the Atlantic Monthly (via writer Walter Kirn) posits the theory that multitasking isn't efficient and it's going to go away. (Interesting, but not likely.)

Time magazine reports in "The Multitasking Generation," "Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect." That article also explains that changes in the prefontal cortex make it harder from the very young and for those over, um, a certain age to multitask. (I haven't reached that certain age yet, but it's only a few years away. Apparently my prefrontal cortex has already changed.) The article also says our brains need rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts and memories. Thus, "Teenagers who fill every quiet moment with a phone call or some kind of e-stimulation may not be getting that needed reprieve. Habitual multitasking may condition their brain to an overexcited state, making it difficult to focus even when they want to."

For the last week or so, I've been trying unitasking--trying to do one thing at a time. I don't turn on the TV while I'm on the computer. I read the newspaper without watching TV, or without sitting at the keyboard to check e-mail. When I get a phone call, I put down my book, or I put the TV on mute, and focus on the call. At the office, when I start a task, I'm trying to complete it before I switch to something else.

You know what? It's hard. I'm addicted to doing several things at once. I'm addicted to trying to "save time" by keeping all those balls in the air. And, to be realistic, I have to acknowledge that there are many areas in life--our jobs, for example--where we don't have a choice. We have to multitask sometimes.

I'm trying to have a Zen attitude about it. I even found a Zen website that gives advice on how NOT to multitask.

Unitasking: a goal to achieve. I'm working on it.

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.


cs harris said...

I think the brains of our children are wired differently as a result of the age they've grown up in. My daughter can't study without the TV on; she says it forces her to focus.

I've never been much of a multitasker. I'll go for a walk and talk on the phone, or read a magazine during commercials on those few occasions when I watch tv. Oh, and I sweep on the phone, too. Otherwise, I need to focus.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been saying for years that kids are hurting themselves by filling every free moment with more phone calls and so on. We all need quiet time to think, and I crave it so much. I do multi task but it's largely because I have to at my job. I'm constantly being interrupted to deal with another issue. I definitely believe it is less efficient, and sometimes it is a way to actually avoid hard work.

Lisa said...

I've consciously cut down on my multi-tasking quite a bit in the last four years, but I used to be TERRIBLE. I've had a blackberry for years and would read email, talk on my cell phone, drive, etc. all at once. I finally realized that I wasn't doing anything as well as I should have been and I was stressed and cranky all the time. Now I watch other people and notice (especially in airports) that most people have to have some kind of external stimulus all the time, whether it's the cell phone, iPod or TV. I'm with Charles -- our brains need downtime to recharge. We need time to let our thoughts evolve naturally. I think I get less on my "to do" list done, but what I don't get done isn't all that important in the end. I hope something happens to reverse the trend where kids seem to be in constant need of outside stimulus. How in the world does one develop an imagination with no time to think?

Sidney said...

That's good information. I had heard theories that it was not as efficient, and I believe that's true. I will seek to follow the how-not-to advice. Maybe a 12-step program is needed.

Nicholas Genovese said...

I too have wondered about multi tasking and I believe that it is in our genes and is a part of the evolution of homo sapiens and has to do with propagation of the species. I look at my daughter and how she cares for her ten and six year old daughters and marvel at how she is able to vigilantly watch one as she tends to the needs of the other at the same time over and over again.

When I was younger I too could multi task and often wondered about my ability to carry on two conversations at one time and felt that it was just a skill I developed as a result of my very talkative extended family. When I lost the ability, I speculated that I've been out of touch with my family and had lost the knack. Then as I got older I realized that I was wrong on both counts. It's not a knack that you can lose, it's in our genes. They turn on when we approach child rearing age and then shut down after we leave child rearing age. Multi tasking and other such things is why homo sapiens are survirors of the fittest.

And, of course, if we multi task too much we can develop burn out, another innate skill developed by homo sapiens to tell ourselves that we've gone too far.

Steve Malley said...

Good advice I often fail to heed. This despite the fact that my most prolific periods are when I do just the one thing...

Thank you for the reminder.

Rae Ann Parker said...

Very interesting. I definitely agree that multi-tasking often makes me feel like I get nothing done and must resort to actually crossing things off of a list to see any progress.

Thanks for sharing this interesting research. It certainly is a good promo that we don't have to constantly multi-task to be smart, efficient, etc.

Sphinx Ink said...

C.S., I agree about kids' brains being different--when I was a teenager I could study with Top-40 radio on. Now it would drive me crazy. And kids now have far more than radio to distract them....

Charles, I'm lucky not to have constant interruptions during my regular workday, but just hearing people talking outside my office makes it hard for me to focus.

Lisa, I like your phrase: "We need time to let our thoughts evolve naturally." I agree totally. I often wonder about people who can't sit and be with themselves, by themselves. It worries me.

Sidney, a 12-step program may be necessary...I can hear it now...
Me: "Hi, my name's Sphinx Ink and I'm a multitasker."
Chorus: "Hi, Sphinx Ink, welcome."

Nicholas, you make a good point about the necessity of multitasking. Multitasking is required in many parts of our lives. My discussion relates more to multitasking when writing, reading, or doing something else that requires a particular type of mental effort.

Steve, glad the discussion is a helpful nudge.

Rae Ann, at your stage of life multitasking is probably easier than at my stage. As a mother with young children, you HAVE to multitask a lot of the time. Just remember to slow down when you can, so you can practice focusing on one thing at a time. Otherwise, you'll get to my age and feel like a multitasking addict, e.g., "Help, I'm multitasking and I can't stop!"