In our current, modern, lives — where we are ruled by our still untamed electronic frontier — we are led to believe more is more and less is not enough.

Instead of concentrating on one thing as our ancestors did — making a fire, milking the cows, mowing the lawn — we are now expected to do three things simultaneously and do them all well.

This push to do everything at the same time is called Multitasking and scientific research is beginning to prove that doing more than one thing at a time divides us, shears away our attention and actually creates messy work in the end:

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the
chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and
director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan.
“Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of
our ability to process information.”
The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of
trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many
ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two
things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the
Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

Study
participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds
and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer
keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak
the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images.
The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants
were given the tasks one at a time.

But the researchers found that
response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the
study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.
In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one
implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that
talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second
delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

This push to be “on top of things” by doing too many things creates a
white noise experience in the brain where priorities are equalized and
perspective is minimized.

The result is an ongoing and never-ending buzz that cannot be discerned
or condemned because the quivering emotional electricity is coming at
you from everywhere and nowhere and so you live in a constant state of
undefined fuzziness.

I
consider myself an expert multitasker. I can write, listen to iTunes,
watch the news and listen to the radio all at the same time. Am I truly
taking in all those information sources or do I unwittingly only tune
in one source at a time?

As the world becomes noisier and faster
and open workspaces become the norm — we seek ways to internalize our
minds. We disappear into our iPods. We chat on the phone while driving.
We read the newspaper while carrying on a morning conversation over the
breakfast table.
Are we better for this ability to pretend to simultaneously do well
many things?
Or are we only deceiving our employers and ourselves by taking on more
than we can prophetically accomplish?

As a person who claims the ability to multitask, I can tell you those
around me do not appear to share my talent.
I do not need a car. I live in a Walking City.
Everything I need is within a mile of my home. I walk everywhere.
I promise you those in cars who talk on their cellular phones while
driving do not see me — or anyone else around them — crossing the
street.
Those drivers are completely unaware and uncaring unless and until it
is too late to realize the tragedy of the myth of multitasking.

18 Comments

  1. In the UK it’s illegal to talk on the phone while driving. I think exceptions are made for certain types of handsfree kit but I don’t believe they should be.
    In Sweden (where I live) it’s not illegal but I wish it was as I’m frequently almost run off the road by an idiot that never even sees me.
    Regarding multitasking at home and at work: I do it a lot and find it reasonably effective. Yes I have to split my concentration but it means I get things done which would otherwise have to wait until I had time to concentrate on them alone. I don’t feel that this is a problem with non-harmful activities. If I’m watching the TV and reading at the same time who cares if I miss a bit of the program plot or have to go back and reread the last paragraph because I got caught up in the TV.
    Likewise at work(I’m a software developer) I think multitasking is a good thing as I work on large systems with a lot of functionality. The more concepts I can keep current (in my mind) the better – it saves me reinventing the wheel or covering old ground I know has been tried and tested. In short it makes be a better developer.

  2. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Mike!
    Thanks for your great comment and I agree there are those of us who can do multitasking quite well.
    It was interesting, though, in one study at Microsoft — that demonstrated engineers discovered when they paused to answer email or use IM it took them 15 minutes to get their minds fully back on task.
    The advice was: Check your email and IMs once an hour and not every two minutes if you want to get any work done on time.
    We have those laws forbidding handheld cellphone use here in some states — but wearing a headset doesn’t help the cause, though. Drivers are still distracted by outside conversation and they do not pay attention to the road.
    I just got back from the store and I was in the middle of a crosswalk and a black car was barreling down on me.
    I managed to step back as his car sideswiped my sack of goodies.
    The guy behind the wheel looked up at me and was startled to see me. He didn’t care he almost hit me dead-on — he was just surprised to see me there.

  3. Mike has already made the point about mobile phones in the UK. There is now also talk that Sat Navs with their talking voices have the same disrupting effect and that they are looking at legislation to control their use as well.
    Reading anything at our table was and still is considered to be the height of bad manners and is a huge NO – under any circumstances.
    I find I can multi task at considerable levels but never a 100% on all the tasks – and I think this is the risk we take when multi- tasking. If I need to focus – the TV /new goes off and the kids get exiled from the room while I work.
    There is a standing joke in this country that women can multi-task and men cannot – to which I reply yes they can – they can sleep and snore!

  4. Hi Nicola!
    It’s interesting that a cellular conversation can create such trouble but talking to someone in your car doesn’t seem to have the same deadly consequences. I wonder if it’s a real-time/same room thing — cellular calls are always hard to hear and sort of delayed and innately spurious.
    Those navigation things are fascinating. I can’t wait until our vehicles become “other driven” and we just sit back and use them as painless, and safe, entertainment centers.
    Is one allowed to sit at your table wearing headphones or listening to something other than the conversation?
    I think INTJs do multitasking better than any other personality type. We won’t multitask what we haven’t already mastered so, for us, multitasking is necessary and natural in many ways.
    I love that joke! When I was looking for images for my article I came across an X-Rated one where a woman stretching her arms in two directions: She was bottle-feeding her baby in a high-chair with one hand, and with the other hand, she was holding her husband’s member and giving him head. All the faces were blurred out and I have to say — real or not — the woman modeling the multitasking was amazing as she contorted herself in all those positions! 😀

  5. I think cell phones are harder to hear.
    I know from my driving days that I would often say shushhhh I need to concentrate on this bit – particularly if I was in heavy traffic or and unfamiliar place.
    No headphones or computers or iPods or PDA’s allowed at table either !
    I do have a tendency to work in levels …… I will put the washing machine on then do other stuff while it is going like cook a meal and while that is cooking I will maybe wash up or make next days sandwiches for the kids – maybe more time management than multi-tasking ?
    Your cartoon sounds very familiar – I suspect I may have seen it.

  6. Cellphones are pretty lousy technology, Nicola. The only good thing about them is they fit in your pocket. I, too, have a terrible time hearing anything on them even with one finger stuffed in the other ear!
    Are you required to talk at the table? Or can you go inside yourself and hum in your mind or something?
    I think Multitasking includes time management but not necessarily the other way around.
    It was a photo image I saw — obviously posed — but not a cartoon! 😀

  7. Yes we were/are required to talk at the table – but only in between mouthfuls! Talking with your mouth full was another heinous crime!
    Family time, communication time, sharing time, catch up on day time along with family announcements and plans time and we had grandmother there to make sure we ALL joined in.
    The family that eats together stays together! (Another UK proverb).
    You really need to engage the “moderate” safeguard on google ! 🙂

  8. It sounds like you have a wonderful table, Nicola! I love it that everyone is expected to talk. That is a great want of inclusion!
    I agree family time is grand and in an ever-busy world, sometimes the pause to eat is the only communal time a family can find to share.
    Oh, “Safe Search” is off now and forever! I hate it when it gets mysteriously reset back to the default. All the good stuff is in the surprising naughty bits! :mrgreen:

  9. Hi David,
    Multitasking is just a way of justifying having less employees do the job of two or three former employees.
    Banning multitasking just makes more people “criminal” and ends up making everyone more tolerant of disobeying the law because they routinely violate some of the various prohibitions that are in place.
    Using hand-held cell phones while driving and eating foie gras at a restaurant are both illegal in Chicago. Even though these things are banned, I still see people barreling down Lake Shore Drive — exceeding the posted speed limit — yapping on their cell phones. I also hear news reports that people are still eating foie gras at restaurants.
    Maybe we should start a “Multitasking Credit Market.” People who feel bad about multitasking can pay us $49.00 for a bumper sticker that says they paid for their “Multitasking Offset” that they can put on their car as they speed on the roadways while eating their Chalupas and talking with friends on the cell phone. If enough people pay $49.00 for a credit, we can stop doing work to offset all of the extra work they are doing! :mrgreen:

  10. Chris!
    Ah-ha! I like your argument that multitasking is just another way to get away with overloading good people: Guilt them into doing more work by creating this myth that doing 10 things at once is the sign of a smart worker. Ha!
    You’re right about passing laws and mandates and not enforcing them. I see cops in both NJ and NY who use handheld cellphones while driving their patrol cars! It’s madness! They don’t see pedestrians walking around, either!
    I like a multitasking tax, Chris! We won’t use efficiency as a requirement, though, because then no one would pass the test! 😀

  11. Hi David,
    I see people passing the cops while holding their cellphones and eating foie gras with impunity!
    Of course, the police might be distracted by the laptop computers that are part of their vehicle’s communications system.

  12. I lived with an INTJ and an ENFP for a semester and both of them were a brilliant multi tusker whereas I was a pathetic one.
    They could watch a movie, write a paper, talk on phone as well as with three other people in the room, and cook a meal (trust me, I am not exaggerating…!)…..
    I felt like pulling my hair off.
    If I try writing a paper and listening to music at the same time – after 10 minutes I will discover I am trying to dissect the music – whether it is bad or good, whose music it is, whether I know it or not and so on… 🙁
    Multitasking is definitely not my forte.
    Nicola – yes! The family that eat together, stay together…! 😀

  13. Thanks David! Oh yes – I forgot to add one – they could chat online along with all those…
    I never saw them burning a meal, writing a movie critique instead of the paper, goofing up while talking online and on phone at the same time…!
    I am yet to figure out the mechanism!

  14. Hi Katha!
    Ha! Online chatting is a phenomenon I try to avoid. I’d be on there all day long if I ever tempted myself with that sort of fun!
    You learn to multitask slowly. Like building a soup. You start a simmer. Add a few things. Season. Test. Eat. Repeat with better changes. It’s exposure to the process that builds up your immunity to distraction but to get there you have to become frustrated and distracted to become numb to the former diversions.

  15. Ok, I will try…
    I can assume what will happen for the first few times though! I will ruin my food, write something else instead of the assignment, make people angry because I will call them by wrong name… 😀