The Myth of Multitasking

Written By admin

On October 22, 2010

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This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.

–Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son (c. 1740s)

I recently purchased 2GB of new memory for my home computer—hoping to get a couple more years of a little improved performance from the old work-horse. While on-line shopping for the memory, I noticed concepts like “improved processing speeds” and “extreme multitasking” among the other, carefully crafted verbiage designed to Multitaskingelicit a Pavlovian response to a world of new possibilities and super-human functioning available to me if I’d only purchase their newest stuff—stuff that will be out of date within three to six months of any purchase.

One of the common through-lines I noticed was the concept of super fast, multi-core processors which enabled the CPU to multitask and pixilate the monitor at lightning speeds. I know that machines, such as my old work-horse of a computer, can indeed multitask in the sense of their being able to process equally, multiple demands at the same time. But it got me thinking about the ability, or inability, of humans to truly “multitask.”

Now, I hear this notion of multitasking all the time. It’s a standard line in job descriptions, interviews, supervisors telling staff that they “must be able to…” etc. But is it real?  Or is it just another poorly-conceived demand we place on ourselves with the only real pay-off being increased stress levels and aggravation? Research conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and the University of Michigan have concluded that it can take two to four times longer to do several things at once, compared with doing them one at a time (, August 5, 2010).

There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.

–Chesterfield, ibid.

While we are equipped with dual hemispheres of the brain, these are not the same as dual- or quad-core computer processors able to simultaneously call upon an unimaginable amount of data and make sense out of it all.   I once heard a radio  interview of a neuroscientist talking about this very same idea. He said that multitasking, at least the way we mean it when we apply the concept to our daily work, is a human impossibility. He (I did not catch his name) said that the human brain is not capable of devoting 100% attention to more than one task at a time. And even though many of us may be able to juggle multiple tasks throughout the day, within the hour, etc., we are not truly multitasking in the way we think we mean.

He went on to say that what we are truly doing is adding a tremendous amount of stress to our lives, since what we end up doing is not giving any one task it’s due attention. There are also implications for how we manage our time during the day, where we place our focus and emphasis, and what we prioritize as of true value worthy of our investing precious energy in the form of undivided attention. In the New Atlantis Journalof Technology and Society, Christine Rosen writes the following, in an article by the same title as this post.

When people do their work only in the ‘interstices of their mind-wandering,’ with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

“Today, our collective will to pay attention seems fairly weak. We require advice books to teach us how to avoid distraction. In the not-too-distant future we may even employ new devices to help us overcome the unintended attention deficits created by today’s gadgets. As one New York Timesarticle recently suggested, ‘Further research could help create clever technology, like sensors or smart software that workers could instruct with their preferences and priorities to serve as a high tech ‘”time nanny”’ to ease the modern multitasker’s plight.’ Perhaps we will all accept as a matter of course a computer governor—like the devices placed on engines so that people can’t drive cars beyond a certain speed. Our technological governors might prompt us with reminders to set mental limits when we try to do too much, too quickly, all at once.

“Then again, perhaps we will simply adjust and come to accept what [William] James called ‘acquired inattention.’ E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming—all this may become background noise, like the ‘din of a foundry or factory’ that James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work only in the ‘interstices of their mind-wandering,’ with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

And wisdom is one thing technology will never be able to guarantee.