Can We Really Multitask?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jan 16, 2016

“To do two things at once is to do neither.”
Publilius Syrus

I have always thought of myself as a person who could do a lot of things at the same time. Most would call that kind of person a multitasker. But I recently came across some things that have caused me to question the world of multitasking. 

In Psychology Today (May 12, 2014), Dr. Nancy K. Napier wrote an article titled “The Myth of Multitasking.” She begins, “Think you’re good at doing several things at once? Reading and listening to music? Driving and talking on the phone (hands free, of course), or texting while sitting in a meeting? Think again.” 

According to recent research, the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously. Instead we just switch tasks quickly in a start/stop/start process and when we do that we actually lose substantive time on what we are trying to accomplish.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk says in another article in Psychology Today (September 18, 2012) titled “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking,” that the “task switching” process causes us to make more errors than if we did one task at a time. In fact, she says, “Each task switch might waste only one-tenth of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40 percent of your productivity.”

Around the time I came across these articles I saw Gary Keller’s #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller book, “The One Thing; The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.” I knew I would enjoy this book when I looked inside and read this Russian proverb: “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” 

Keller invites the reader into a world where “You want less” with “fewer distractions and less on your plate. The barrage of e-mails, calls, and meetings keep you from your most important work. Simultaneous demands of work and family take a toll. What’s the cost? Second-rate work, missed deadlines, smaller paychecks — and lots of stress.” 

And, while all of that is happening “You want more. You want more productivity from your work. More income for a better lifestyle. You want more satisfaction from life, and more time for yourself, your family and your friends.” 

Keller advocates that if the reader can learn about “The ONE thing,” you can have both “less and more.” I found the book helpful, especially Chapter 5 titled “Multitasking.” He references Stanford University professor Clifford Nass who set out to find out how multitaskers multitasked. He gave 262 students questionnaires to find out how they multitasked. His conclusion, “Multitaskers are lousy at everything.” And in Keller’s words, “Multitasking is a lie.”

Keller says that this term has embedded itself in our culture, that we just take for granted the ability to multitask and to do it well. He illustrates the circus juggler who is often used to illustrate multitasking but even the juggling is an illusion. “To the casual observer, a juggler is juggling three balls at once. In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. Catch, toss, catch, toss, catch, toss. One ball at a time.” And then he uses the word “task switching.”

Although I am challenged by these insights that counter the notion of multitasking and advocating “the ONE big thing,” I find that I must somehow discover a balance between them. Most of our lives are filled with multiple obligations and we serve in multiple roles and we have multiple interests. We also know that life is not linear — where they come at us in clean succession of one by one by one. Life comes at us from all directions.

I need to hear these cautionary thoughts, however, because they help me search for that reasonable balance between trying to do too much poorly and one thing well while the rest remains undone.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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