#17 Is Multitasking a Myth?

Recently, I had my students keep a log of their time use for a week.  They listed how many hours spent working, going to class, doing family chores, sleeping, and the like.  All activities had to add up to 168 hours—the number of hours in a week.  A number of students had totals in excess of 168; one totaled 280 hours for the week!  When I asked where they found the “additional hours,” they responded, “I multitask!”  Hmm.
While it is true that a certain bit of multitasking does take place naturally (for instance, right now I am typing, breathing, seeing) when it comes to focus and attending to stimuli, multitasking is a myth.  At least so maintains, John Medina in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, bluntly argues, “Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously. We must jump from one thing to the next.”
His argument rests on research that suggests every time we have two or more competing stimuli, there are four sequential steps that have to happen as we move from stimulus to stimulus.

  1. Shift alert. The brain readies itself for the shift in attention.
  2. Activation for the task at hand. The brain follows the command to do whatever the task is—such as typing an email.
  3. Disengagement. When the brain attends to incoming stimulus (say, a phone call), it disengages from task #1 and readies itself for a new shift alert.
  4. Activation for the new task at hand. The brain now pays attention to the new task (the phone call).

Medina says the steps have to take place each time we engage something new–or simply shift attention back and forth between two stimuli. So, while we may still be typing while talking, the research says that we are actually shifting gears continually during the process—following the four steps above. This results in accomplishing both tasks at a slower rate (up to twice as long) and a 50% increase in errors. (See Medina’s brief and funny video “The Brain Can’t Multitask” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO_oEGHWSMU.)
Edward Hallowell puts it this way in his book Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!
“Multitasking refers to a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one. To appreciate how faulty this notion is, consider…one of the first things you do is turn down the radio if lost in your car. Why? Because you want to pay single-minded attention to the task of finding your way.”
One of my students said she did her homework at the same time she watched her child. The reality, I suggested, was that the child was in the same room while she read her book. When she raised her eyes from the book to watch her child, she went through the four steps above—and for however long she was engaged with the child, she was NOT doing her homework.  When she returned to her book, she then was NOT watching her child.
The research merits consideration.  Think of when you have been switching back and forth between two tasks. Possibly, you asked, “Where was I?” Or maybe you had to reread the paragraph you thought you were reading as you were talking on the phone or watching the football game.
And so while we may be doing two things at the same time, the research suggests, at the very least, effectiveness has been significantly compromised.
Now, it’s time for me to power down the computer and to focus on Sunday Night Football.

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2010.

About stevepiscitelli

Community Advocate-Author-Pet Therapy Team Member
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14 Responses to #17 Is Multitasking a Myth?

  1. jeff peters says:

    A similar book… “The Myth of Multitasking” by Dave Crenshaw …has an interesting little exercise to prove the point.


  2. Thanks, Jeff. I would love to see that exercise–I will check it out.


  3. bob turba says:

    Thank gawd they didn’t expose the well-kept, time-honored tradition of husband multi-tasking. I mean, how would we ever get anything done if we had to listen to every word our wives said LOL.


  4. Justin F. says:

    Yes Multitasking is a myth. But if you organize your priorities and the time that you spend on them, then you will be less stressed.And in being less stressed you will be able to focus on your organized priorites and be able to complete them at a faster rate.
    Justin F.


  5. John F. says:

    The little things that you do in class to prove your point has had an impact on the way I look at words like “multi-tasking and time management. Your insight has made me a better student and I am fortunite to have a creative instructor to constantly prove me wrong.:]


  6. Ryan R says:

    I always thought “multitasking” was true until I heard Mr. Piscitelli do a little speech about it in class. I wonder what the world would be like if everybody was convinced that it was a myth? Brain Rules looks very interesting, I’ll put that on my Christmas list!


  7. Trong T says:

    multitasking is scientifically impossible, and people do things that seem like multitasking. However, they have to do that because people are connected, and they have different schedules. Therefore, they have to fit theirs with others to move on.


  8. Jermaine R. says:

    I never really understood how much of a myth multitasking was until I met Steve. Steve’s lectures on prioritizing were life changing. I will never have to attend an AA meeting to learn to take life’s matters one step at a time.


  9. antoinette ferrell says:

    I always believed that I was a multi-tasker, that is until I read this blog. I am always trying to do more than one task at a given moment. At the end of the day, I wonder why I am so tired. I am always trying to start dinner, help my daughter with homework, and various other things. In all actuality, nothing is ever getting accomplished. I will never again try to multi-task. Thank you for the insight!


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