The Multitasking Myth

When people began multitasking on their computers, it was as if a new world had evolved:  desktops could now run spreadsheets, Word documents, and even a calculator simultaneously.  As our computers multitasked, we soon followed. Multitasking during the 1990s and the 2000s became the rage.  Multitasking had become the purported path to improved productivity and capability.  

Unfortunately, rather than making one more productive and capable, multitasking makes one less so. ‘The Journal of Experimental Psychology’ reported after lengthy sessions, that most multitaskers are more forgetful and unable to concentrate. Walter Pauk in his book, How to Study in College, relates that new found knowledge accumulated while multitasking, is stored in the striatum rather than the hippocampus (the known repository for information and facts) portion of the brain. Recalling information from the striatum, however,  is often unreliable.  

As multitasking increases, concentration decreases. No matter what multitaskers do, only part of their mind is engaged.  Multitasking causes, what psychologist Rene Marois of Vanderbilt calls, ‘response selection bottleneck.’ In essence, the brain isn’t sure how to prioritize the set of tasks being juggled, so it stalls, and any expected timesaving through multitasking evaporates. Worse, indecisiveness causes the brain to release stress hormones and adrenaline, which over time can cause health problems and short-term memory loss.

Other products of multitasking are procrastination and ‘loss of control.’ The very nature of multitasking, this shifting between tasks while not accomplishing them, is a perfect vehicle for procrastinators. Furthermore, because multitasking is a function of working on, but not completing, a series of tasks, multitaskers feel as if they have little control over the outcomes of their actions.  Not getting the job done in a timely and concentrated effort exacts a heavy toll.

Multitasking tends to shift the brain into an accelerated mental overdrive. Consequently, by the end of the day, the brain is so wired, that the multitasker has difficulty unwinding and going to sleep. According to Drs. Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil in their book Technostress,  multitaskers have an “inability to sustain a peaceful night’s sleep or to enjoy what used to be calming, recreational times.” Insomnia is a common byproduct of multitasking.

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts, in his book CrazyBusy, states multitasking leads to attention-deficit trait (ADT), a near cousin of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with one overarching difference: ADT is a product of environment and a multitasker’s response to it, while ADHD is a genetic-based disorder. Symptoms of ADT are a short temper, thinking in black and white, a faltering intelligence, difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing schedules.  

To combat multitasking, and the raft of ills that accompany it, there are simple and effective measures to take.  Of utmost importance, as any Zen master will tell you, is to slow down and focus on the moment and enjoy the task at hand.  Don’t rush, don’t get flustered, just slow down.  Plan your day and list the tasks to be done and schedule adequate time to perform each. This will give you control over your day. The key is to gain mastery over the tasks rather than the other way around.

During the 1990s, when multitasking was vogue, an article showcasing how to work out the ‘brain’s multitasking hot spot’ appeared in the New York Times Magazine section. The actual ‘workout’ proved to be the destruction of productivity, memory, learning, concentration, physical and mental health, and sleep. So, if you’re reading this while writing a memo, emailing, and watching a You Tube video, consider the wisdom of Lord Chesterfield: “… [the] undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; a hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”