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Everything Else

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Multi-Tasking is a fantasy. There are plenty of high-energy people out there who say they can Multi-Task, and many a job-seeker has laid claim to this skill in an interview. The truth is, they are lying. Humans can only do one thing at a time.

Our modern tools have propagated the Multi-Tasking myth. Our Smart-TV’s display a picture-in-picture view of two simultaneous channels and our computers show numerous windows. Today’s office workers typically sit facing multiple monitors. As you read this, your email inbox is filling up while text messages pop up on your digital watch and your phone vibrates with new voicemails. You are convinced you are Multi-Tasking, but you are delusional.

Multi-tasking is commonly believed to be a straight-forward case of doing two or more tasks simultaneously. Many of us spend our days trying to do this, not realizing just how little we are actually accomplishing and how stressed out it is making us. You might be able to walk down the stairs while sipping a latte and checking your smartphone, but true Multi-Tasking reaches beyond mere muscle memory. University of Michigan Psychology Professor David Meyer says that our brains simply aren’t wired for complex concurrent tasks.

My wife and I often turn to meal kits as a complement to grocery shopping, meal planning and eating out. For a non-chef like me, preparing food according to detailed instructions, with all the ingredients pre-measured and arranged on the counter in front of me, is a nice way to relax at the end of a busy WFH day. It is not unusual to have the oven, frying pan and saucepan all simultaneously cooking along on different timers. I am constantly shifting from one task to another to make sure nothing is burning. Although our kitchen is Multi-Tasking, I am not. Swapping attention among several tasks is what the experts call Context Switching – it is not true Multi-Tasking.

Cars are so commonplace that we can easily overlook just how truly amazing their technology really is. For a mere $37K (the average price of a new car in the US) you can own an absolute marvel of modern engineering. Upgrade to multi-zoned climate control, onboard navigation, Internet-connected infotainment, voice control/response, multiple cameras and radar proximity alert systems and it’s easy to forget that the goal is to drive the thing from one place to another. We’ve advanced from the kids chanting “Are we there yet?” to the car intoning “Fasten your seat belt”, “Return to the highlighted route” or “Are you attempting to back up”? For most of us, the real-time demands of navigation and traffic will take priority, requiring us to hastily shift our attention to the world beyond the dashboard.

The coolest tangible evidence that cars have gone high-tech is the prominent center-mounted touchscreen which consolidates the controls and readouts into a single familiar device. Not only has the number of options for driver/car interaction increased dramatically but gone is the tactile reassurance that your hand is on the correct control. The rapid shifts of attention from screen to roadway may seem like a Multi-Tasking workout, but in fact they represent another impostor classified by experts like Business School Professor Sophie Leroy as Attention Residue.

Regardless of whether we are Multi-Tasking (we’re not), Context Switching or victimized by Attention Residue, there is a cost. Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert estimates that we spend nearly 47% of our waking hours doing one thing and thinking about something else. Several studies agree that these task-juggling activities effectively reduce IQ by up to 10 points (and who can afford that?). There is degradation in the brain’s “clipboard” which manages key information and maintains focus. The state of “flow” which lowers our anxiety and enables creative thinking never happens.

The experts, having focused on this one subject for awhile now, agree that Single Tasking is the best way to get things done in less time and at a higher quality. Their advice is simple - concentrate on what we should do and not what we could do. The reduction in stress and the increase in creativity will be seen as proof that our brains are pleased.

The true benefit of modern technology is not that it enables us to Multi-Task. Until we figure out how to rewire our brains, that won’t happen. What it can be very good at, if we only accept it, is to free us to focus on the one thing that matters most and doing it well, while it takes care of everything else.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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