Friday, March 19, 2010

No More Multitasking

“The sound shivers through the walls, through the table, through the window frame, and into my finger. These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics. Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn't watching. He's singing and dancing. He's pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother's holding your attention every moment you're awake. He's making sure you're always distracted. He's making sure you're fully absorbed... and this being fed, it's worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what's in your mind. With everyone's imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”
~ Chuck Palahniuk

I'm done with pretending. Multitasking is not an efficiency booster, it's just a four-syllable word for being distracted.

Yesterday, while chatting with my husband about something on the local TV news and simultaneously scanning the morning's e-mail, I misread a note from a client and responded with a stupid question. A few minutes later, while making dinner plans with two friends, I failed to notice that my calendar had jumped to 2011.

As author and molecular biologist John Medina wrote in his 2008 book Brain Rules, "research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously." What we are actually doing is switching back and forth from one task to another, and each time we switch we inhibit our efficiency.

But it gets worse. Multitasking also makes us poor learners. In Science Daily (June 26, 2006), Russell Poldtrack, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, described a multitasking study he and his team had done. They found that even if you learn while multitasking, "that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily." The study's conclusion: "The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember." I think my parents told me that about 50 years ago.

While I've never been one to multitask while driving — in bad road conditions, I don't even like to talk to the person in the car with me — I've become a manic multitasker at work. It's not unusual for me to have a writing project open on the monitor connected to my G4 and social media running on my Macbook.

But I'm starting to rein things in, step by step. Step one: I'm doing my research old school (assuming the school dates from the digital era); I'm downloading online research, taking notes and then working from the notes instead of referring back to online sources, which frequently lead to charming but time-consuming diversions. Step two: I'm writing on my creaky old G4; because it's too slow for most of what happens online, it discourages digressions into e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and other destinations on the million-ring-circus known as the Internet. Step three: when all else fails, I grab my notes and head for a quiet corner of the local coffee shop.

If anyone has tips on kicking the multitasking habit, I'd love to hear them.

For more on why multitasking is a bad idea, see the rather frightening August 2009 Wired Science story, "Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer Is Off."

“Hutchison's Law: Any occurrence requiring undivided attention will be accompanied by a compelling distraction.”
~ Robert Bloch


  1. Michele,

    I believe that multi-tasking is either an ability or delusion of youth. They can simultaneously watch television, listen to music and do their homework. In fact, they probably can't do one without the accompaniment of the others.

    Me, a middle-aged relic, I find it difficult to write and listen to music at the same time. If the music doesn't sweep me away, it may even subvert my work. Yes, I certainly want to write marketing pieces while listening to "Won't Get Fooled Again." Even classical music can be subversive. Try write executive speeches while listening to Wagner. You'll have this overwhelming urge to demand the Sudetenland, which is not the usual text for a Chief Financial Officer.


  2. Eugene,

    I was thinking about that, too — the way the teenage me always did homework to music or read while the TV was on (truthfully, except for one or two shows, I still have to find something more to do when the TV is on). Although I haven't experienced the Wagnerian effect, I completely agree that music is now a major distraction. These days I can only write to Miles Davis — Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Generique, that sort of thing. Everything else distracts me, but Miles Davis puts me into some Zen zone.