“My kids are natural multi-taskers!” a friend exclaimed. She bragged that they could listen to music, watch TV and do their homework all at the same time. She might have been proud of their efforts, but she wasn’t accurate about their abilities. Research has concluded that it will take her kids longer to do their homework and likely they won’t do it
We think of multitasking as the ability to successfully perform more than one activity at the same time. It has become a seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon like walking in the park while talking to a friend. But there is a difference: walking doesn’t require our cognitive attention, so we are free to concentrate on our conversation. Other situations are more complex. For instance, it’s a different matter to read a book and listen to a lecture.
In reality, what we commonly refer to as multitasking is the rapid shifting of attention from one task to another that creates the illusion we are performing them concurrently.
Nancy K. Napier Ph.D., in her article, The Myth of Multitasking said, “…much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. This rapid switching of tasks makes us prone to error and ends up consuming more time than if we undertook one task at a time.
Workplace demands often create the perceived need to continually switch tasks. That makes people less effective. The ability to do a thing well and quickly requires full attention, and the myth of multitasking prevents that from occurring.
Success in any area is a function of the capacity to pay attention. Isaac Newton, for example, credited his success and discoveries as “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”
So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
Stop fooling yourself. You’re not truly multi-tasking, you’re task switching. And that’s fine if that’s what you want to do. But there is a better way.
Block uninterrupted time to work on important projects. Aim for at least 30-60 minutes without phone calls, walk-ins or other distractions.
Choose to focus your attention on one thing at a time. For example, at your next meeting, try listening to others rather than glancing at your smartphone or jotting unrelated notes.
Give people your undivided attention. While it sounds cliche, it is difficult to do, but the payoffs are big. Not only will you improve the interaction, but you’ll demonstrate the regard you have for the other person.
Consciously avoid demanding others to multi-task. Don’t interrupt a colleague involved in another activity to make a request. Pick (or schedule) times to interact when the other person isn’t distracted by competing demands.
Read Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. It is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and will provide many insights and tactics you can use to beat the myth of multitasking.