“Multitasking is an illusion,” Arianna Huffington said in a recent speech about human capital and taking care of oneself. “You do neither well. It is actually task switching, which means we don’t get anything done and we don’t give anything 100 percent.”
I believe that Arianna hit the nail on the head in this saying. I hear all the time about people multitasking and I’ve even consciously tried to multi-task a few times and came to the same conclusion. It’s not that one can’t have some background music going on or be inadvertently doing more than one thing at a time, it’s really about the fact that we all focus on only one thing at a time, so we are really doing rapid task switching when we think we are multi-tasking.
Once we task switch, it takes an instant for the brain to catch up on the context of where we left off and what might have changed since then,. The brain is saying, “Wait, what was I doing here?”, so it actually slows things down. If the two (or more) tasks that we are trying to do at once are rapidly changing, that can mean the brain is always trying to catch up and doesn’t really have much time to accomplish anything else. Sometimes, especially when trying to multitask and drive, it is that split second of catch up time that is the difference between avoiding a crash or getting into one. People who try to walk and text on their phones may tend to walk into things or step off the curb into the path of on-coming traffic.
So, why do we try to multitask? Our society has become very “real-time” oriented. We try to stay connected at all times and we try to stay busy at all times. When we are in the middle of something and the cell phone rings, we try to answer it immediately, even if that means taking a hand off the wheel to fish around in our pocket for the phone. No matter that the urgent call was some other multitasker standing in line at the grocery who decided to call and say, “Hey, what’s going on?”
The fact is that life can go on without you answering that call. It wasn’t that far back when we didn’t have cell phones or email or many of the other modern multitasking distractions and we somehow muddled through. And those things that we feel are so important to get done that we try to do 2-3 at a time can be prioritized such that each gets our full attention and gets done better because of that. We need to stop and ask ourselves why – why am I trying to do both of these things at once? Once you let your brain ask that question, it will figure out the order in which to do them so that they both get done well.
An ancient saying applies here – “Jack of all trades and master of none.” That’s what multitasking can do to you. So if you want to give the world the illusion that you are somehow multitasking, buy a set of noise canceling headphones and wear them while you are studying or reading. People will think you’re also listening to music (multitasking), when in reality you are focusing on the task at hand.