Tuesday, July 21, 2009No Such Thing As Multitasking
At last, an article that articulates my thoughts on this matter. It's all about attention.
In Brain Rules, Medina points out that the brain cannot multitask:
"Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. A pianist can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention… To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously."
If you’ve ever put on a CD to listen to while working, and then noticed with surprise that the music has finished and you can’t remember hearing any of it, you’ll know what Medina is talking about. Because we can only concentrate on one thing at a time, when we try to do multiple tasks that require attention, we end up switching between tasks, not doing them simultaneously.
Business coach Dave Crenshaw, author of the book The Myth of Multitasking, makes the same point:
"When I speak of multitasking as most people understand it, I am not referring to doing something completely mindless and mundane in the background such as exercising while listening to this CD, eating dinner and watching a show, or having the copy machine operate in the background while you answer emails. For clarity’s sake, I call this ‘background tasking’.
When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. Examples would include saying we’re spending time with family while were researching stocks online, attempting to listen to a CD and answering email at the same time, or pretending to listen to an employee while we are crunching the numbers."
So there’s no such thing as multitasking. Just task switching - or at best, background tasking, in which one activity consumes our attention while we’re mindlessly performing another.