There’s No Such Thing As Multitasking


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A PBS documentary called “Digital Nation” is, albeit a couple years old, a brilliant look at how technology – including social media – has impacted our daily lives.

The movie – with the running time of a feature film – specifically delves into how technology is affecting young people who have grown up never knowing a time without cell phones, texting, gaming and social media.

One thread in the narrative was the debate over whether this younger generation (the documentary went to South Korea’s gaming parlors as well as around colleges in the United States) can effectively multitask and how important or unnecessary that will be to their futures and their careers.

The science behind the show is eye-opening. There’s one amazing moment when they show a brain scan of a teenager reading a book side-by-side with a scan of that same teenager searching for something on Google.

It’s all worth the watch, especially of you are a parent of someone under the age of 16.

But it also brings up something I have always believed in passionately: there is no such thing as multitasking.

I can’t read a book and think about planning my vacation this summer any more than I can write and send a tweet and an email simultaneously. One must come before or after the other; they can’t exist in the same space in time. To argue otherwise seems – to borrow a phrase from Star Trek’s Dr. Spock – “not logical.”

This is the same logic we use when we caution so strongly against texting and driving – you can’t pay attention to the road and your phone at the same time and do each task with 100% of your faculties.

The reason I feel so strongly about debunking the myth of multitasking is because I believe it makes us less effective as individuals. It muddles our work product and clutters the creative centers of our brains. We volunteer to accept too much information at once, and our brains – no matter how Magna Cum Laude we graduated – can’t process it all. And in world that is moving faster due to technology, we somehow have to find a way to push back against it to maintain the quality of what we do and how we live our lives.

Attempting to multitask – by keeping multiple windows open on your computer, for example – only bifurcates your attention span, splitting it into smaller, less effective parts. In the end, my experience is that multitasking makes my projects take longer, increases my chances that I will make, or not catch, a mistake, and decrease the overall quality of my work.

By multitasking, we basically sign up to be less than we could be, and pretend we’re actually doing more.

Do you multitask?